(Stars and Stripes)

NAVAL AIR FACILITY ATSUGI, Japan – On a team loaded with veterans who proved they knew how to win in last year’s Division II tournament, a freshman infielder played a huge role in helping Yokota make it back-to-back titles.

Cocoro Jones doubled in the tying run and scored on Zaylee Gubler’s infield single as the Panthers rallied from three runs down to edge E.J. King 7-6 Thursday at Atsugi’s MacArthur Field for the Panthers’ fourth D-II softball title in school history.

“She’s an athlete,” Panthers coach Steven Cruz said of Jones, a three-sport athlete who also helped Yokota capture the D-II volleyball title last fall.

“That’s what helped us. She’s my No. 3 hitter. She goes up there, she’s determined, she puts the ball in play, she’s just great all around.”

Yokota won the D-II softball title in consecutive years for the second time, having also taken the crown in 2015 and 2016. The last two years, the Panthers have had to play from behind in the final, having rallied last April to beat Matthew C. Perry.

Pitchers Erica Haas and Zaylee Gubler, each junior right-handers, played huge roles in Thursday’s semifinal and championship games, each in relief of each other.

“They each have different styles,” said Cruz, who had Gubler relieve Haas in the semifinal and vice versa in the title game. “Erica has different types of movement with her pitches. Zaylee throws harder. They complement one another.”

Haas and Gubler also produced at the plate, combining to go 4-for-7 in the final, with Gubler driving in two runs.

That helped offset King’s Alyssa Chaney, who went 3-for-3 and scored twice. The Panthers made five errors and all but one of the Cobras’ runs were unearned.

It was Jones being in the right place at the right time that made the difference, Cruz said.

“We were grateful to have her on that bag as the winning run at second base with her speed,” Cruz said. “All we needed was a blooper with her speed and she would get home quick. She was the right person to have on the bag at that time.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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