By Nick Giannandrea
Cassie Sunblade wasn't about to let College of the Sequoias' softball season unravel before it even began.
Not after relocating to Visalia from Nebraska and rediscovering her love of softball while finding a home in the Giants' program.
So when COS lost both of its projected catchers to season-ending injuries right around winter break, Sunblade knew what she had to do.
Sunblade volunteered to switch to catcher - a position she had never previously played - after spending the fall preparing to be the Giants' third baseman.
"It was something I felt I needed to do," Sunblade said. "I wanted to make sure we had a way of reaching our goals."
Following injures to AJ Huerta and Lilly Goins, COS coach Cori Janelli was left with few options to catch after her roster whittled to 10 players.
"I don't know who we would have thrown back there if she hadn't volunteered," Janelli said. "She saved our season."
Sunblade not only helped save the season, she's helped the Giants thrive.
With Sunblade catching every pitch of every inning this season, COS has gone 28-14, captured the outright Central Valley Conference title and upset seventh-seeded Foothill last weekend on the road in a Northern California Regional.
Up next for the 10th-seeded Giants is a Super Regional at No. 1 San Mateo (39-2) this weekend. The best-of-three series begins at 2 p.m. Friday and continues at noon Saturday, with a third game scheduled for 2 p.m. if necessary.
The winner advances to the eight-team state championship tournament May 16-19 in Bakersfield.
That the Giants emerged as one of 16 teams left in the chase for the state title would have been improbable if not for the selfless switch and relatively seamless transition to catching made by Sunblade, who has committed only two errors in 211 total chances for a team second-best .991 fielding percentage.
"Cassie just jumped in there and has done a really good job filling that role," Janelli said. "It's not an easy role to fill, but she put in the extra work on her own to get better. She's really blossomed into the catcher we needed. We're very happy with everything she's done for us."
In switching positions, Sunblade said she was just following the expectations of the Giants' softball program.
"Our whole mantra has been about playing for each other and having a higher standard," Sunblade said. "We set high goals at the beginning of the year. And with any big goals, there are going to be bumps along the way. I have phenomenal teammates who have worked hard at their positions, and Ari (Guzman) is a great pitcher, so I had to step up.
"It was definitely a big learning curve. All the players and coaches we're really helpful in teaching me how to do things. It was a little frustrating at times, but one thing that really helped me was to not have expectations. (Assistant coach Jody Williamson) told me it doesn't matter what it looks like as long as the job gets done."
While Sunblade said she has felt comfortable catching from the start, one of the toughest things to learn was how to frame pitches for Guzman, the CVC Pitcher of the Year.
"The most challenging thing is catching the pitch the right way and helping out Ari as much as I can," Sunblade said. "I want to get as many strike calls for her as she can get."
After playing primarily third and a little outfield during of her career, Sunblade has relished the chance to try something new.
"I have definitely enjoyed the challenge behind it," Sunblade said. "It's something I can always improve on. It always requires more of me, and I enjoy that."
Sunblade ended up at COS after following friend and former teammate Morghen Bowen to Visalia. Sunblade and Bowen, a former Mission Oak standout, played as freshmen at Midland University in Fremont, Neb., in 2017 before Bowen transferred to COS for her sophomore year in 2018.
Sunblade took the 2018 season off, saying she had lost her love of the game. But her passion for softball returned after being around the Giants' program. .
"I'm very grateful for my teammates, coaches and this experience," said Sunblade, who is hitting .307 with four home runs and 18 RBI on the season. "And I'm grateful for this program because it promotes everything I value, hard work and integrity and relationships. I'm grateful I found a home at COS."
The sophomore from Ashland, Neb., plans to stop playing softball again after this season and shift her focus toward a career in conservation work.
But she's ending her career with a bang after playing a big role in the Giants' regional-clinching, 4-2 victory over Foothill last weekend, going 3 for 4 with a run-scoring double in the fourth inning. Sunblade also walked and scored a run during COS season-extending, 5-4 win in eight innings over the Owls during the second game of the series.
"We're very proud of them," Janelli said. "They fought and played as hard as they could to get those wins. Now I'm kind of looking forward to playing San Mateo to be honest. It's nice being the underdog. They never expect you to do as well as you end up doing."
Since losing 5-3 to No. 7-ranked Sierra on Feb. 18, San Mateo has won 32 straight games, including a doubleheader sweep of COS on Feb. 22.
The Bulldogs won the first game 6-1 behind pitcher Emily McAdams, who allowed one earned run on two hits over four innings. Riley Donovan homered as San Mateo cruised to an 11-3, five-inning win in the second game.
McAdams (27-1, 0.81 earned-run average and 190 strikeouts in 155 2/3 innings) and outfielder Amanda Ubois-Weitenhagen (.486, 12 HRs, 47 RBI) were named to the North Region Cal JC All-American team, as was COS sophomore shortstop Samantha Martinez (.345, 10 HR, 36 RBI).
The Giants also feature Guzman (27-11, 2.08 ERA, .321, 16 RBI), center fielder Audra Pratt (.318, HR, 34 RBI), left fielder Jenna Reyes (.354, 14 RBI), third baseman Aubrey Cardoza (.288, 2 HR, 16 RBI), second baseman Callie Vincent (.250, 6 HR, 29 RBI), first baseman Elizabeth Valdez (.277, 26 RBI) and right fielder Amanda Ojeda (.248, 7 RBI).
"We know what it will take to beat San Mateo," Janelli said. "It's going to take the whole team. That's what happened last weekend. Everyone contributed and we need that again. If we can do that, we'll be successful."
COS is aiming for its first appearance in the state championship tournament since 2003, when Janelli was an All-American pitcher for the Giants.
COS' only state softball title came in 1994.