By Fred Robledo- SGV Tribune
The silver lining in Los Altos High School’s heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Ayala in the CIF Southern Section Division 3 quarterfinals a year ago is that it had nearly everyone returning, including pitcher and University of Mississippi signee Savannah Diederich in hopes of chasing the school’s first championship this spring.
But before Los Altos’ dream team could ever take shape, hope quickly turned into how and why.
And then it turned into anger and disappointment.
Los Altos learned to chase its title, it wouldn’t happen in Division 3 or even Division 2. Nope, the CIF Southern Section’s master formula jumped the Conquerors all the way to Division 1, sending it to arguably the toughest division in the country.
CIF’s formula using the two previous seasons for divisional placement seemed interesting. How did a team that was a quarterfinal loser in Division 3 last year and just 11-13-1 in 2016 get thrown to the wolves?
It was difficult to understand.
“Initially, I can honestly say I was pretty upset,” Diederich said. “Because I knew going into Division 3 we had a really good chance of winning CIF, so at first I was kind of mad, upset and frustrated.”
Los Altos coach Lydell McCullough went through the same emotions, but when he got his team together, he challenged everyone to stop complaining about the hand it was dealt.
“I knew in my mind it was going to be tough because we’re not built like a lot of those teams in Division 1,” McCullough said. “We’re not forming super teams year-in and year-out, but once in a while you get a (neighborhood) team like ours and you get your chance.
“And look, we’ve got a good team, one that I’ll go up against anybody with. And that’s what I told our girls, instead of complaining and worrying how difficult the challenge is, let’s embrace it and let these teams know who we are.”
That speech rubbed off on Diederich, whose not one to back down from a challenge.
“He challenged us and I’m a competitor,” Diederich said. “My mindset is to get on the field and get a win no matter who’s in front of you. Nobody wants to win more than me. And nobody wants that pressure more than I do.”
It’s not just talk.
Diederich, the reigning San Gabriel Valley player of the year, has been one of the best all-around players in Southern California this spring.
Not only is she 20-2 with a 1.50 ERA with 184 strikeouts in 131 innings, but she also bats cleanup, hitting .380 with 18 RBIs and two home runs.
“She’s a complete all-around player,” McCullough said. “She hits the ball in the gap, for power and that’s what we need in the middle of our lineup. I doubt there are very many complete players around doing what she’s doing against the competition she’s doing it against.”
Los Altos (20-2 overall) served notice in February with only a 2-0 setback against Norco, ranked No. 1 in Division 1 at the time.
It advanced to the championship of the Torrance National tournament before losing to Orange Lutheran 6-0. But it only trailed Orange Lutheran, ranked No. 2 in Division 1, 1-0 before giving up five runs in the sixth.
Those are Los Altos’ only two losses.
And then the big one finally came, beating Mater Dei 7-4 to win the Alan Dugard championship in Irvine, giving the Conquerors a victory over the sixth-ranked Monarchs, a perennial Southern California power.
It let Los Altos know that winning a Division 1 title is still a gigantic task, but not impossible, and that it won’t be a pushover.
And that starts with having a girl in the circle with talent and all the confidence in the world.
“You don’t have a chance unless you have pitching,” McCullough said. “I think Savannah’s confidence is at an an all-time high. Her leadership has gone to another level. Her work ethic over the past year has taken her to another level, and having the success we have and proving to ourselves that we can compete with these teams has taken our (team) confidence to another level, and that all starts with Savannah.”
It wasn’t always this way for Diederich. She nearly quit the team her freshman year in favor of volleyball. But she credits her pitching coach Chrissy Haines with pushing her back toward softball and making a commitment.
“Chrissy’s a competitor,” Diederich said. “She reminded me why I loved the game so much. I kind of stepped away and was thinking volleyball might be my future, but (Chrissy) pushed me. She got me remembering those times when I was a three-year-old in the backyard pitching with my dad and all the memories with it.
“It got me focused and working hard again, and I’m so glad, because I’m with my teammates and doing what I love.”
Diederich admits, she’s way past wondering what Los Altos could have done this season in Division 3.
She’s all in when it comes to welcoming the challenge of Division 1, and knows these are the tests that also will help her prepare for life at the highest levels when she gets to Ole Miss.
Next year she’ll be facing teams with jersey’s from Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference.
That’s why staring at the jersey’s of Norco, Orange Lutheran and Mater Dei were needed tests. It brings out the best in her, something she always knew was true.
“I think so,” Diederich said. “The big moments, the challenges, I love it. I want all the eyes on me, I love having all the pressure on me. Give me that situation and I thrive off it.”
But she admits, she feels that way because of everyone she has around her.
“Our senior class, literally 12 of us grew up together in the same neighborhood,” Diederich said. “I’ve got this picture of us in our little t-ball uniforms. We’re a family and we’ve been doing this a long time.”
That’s what also separates Los Altos from the rest chasing a Division 1 dream.
Not only will Los Altos try to become the first San Gabriel Valley softball team in history to win a Division 1 title, but it’s trying to do it with neighborhood kids, something unlikely, but not out of the question.
“We don’t care who you are, what your ranking is or what your name is, we’re going to play our game,” Diedrich said. “We’re not backing down from anyone.”