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Not without some help

Posted: May 31, 2008 1:57 a.m.
Updated: August 1, 2008 5:03 a.m.

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You haven't heard a lot about Lelani Bernardino.

Deservedly so, you've heard a lot about two of her teammates, one past teammate - 2007 state player of the year Jordan Taylor, one current - 2008 state player of the year candidate Jessica Spigner.

But Bernardino is symbolic of what Valencia softball has been in 2008.

Like her team, the senior outfielder has flown under the radar - probably unjustly.

Valencia, the defending national champions and CIF-Southern Section Division I champions, was not even the favorite to win its own league.

That distinction went to Hart.

The thought was that since Valencia lost Taylor, now pitching at the University of Michigan, the Vikings wouldn't be nearly as strong.

So for the Vikings to make it back to today's Division I title game in Irvine against favored Simi Valley is a shock to some.

"I think people thought this was a rebuilding year," says Valencia head coach Donna Lee. "But you build around your seniors. Lani and Jessie really stepped up."

Spigner has had a huge season, belting a school record 12 home runs and pitching every inning for the team.

It has overshadowed what Bernardino has done, like last year when Taylor had a huge season. But Bernardino has done much to help her team achieve the success of the last two seasons.

"I think because she's an outfielder that Lani's not that person that gets all the limelight," Lee says. "Because she's a slapper she goes unnoticed."

But the slap-hitting 18-year-old doesn't mind.

"No, I'm not really worried about that," she says. "It's more of a team thing.

"I get on base for Jessie. I help them out."

Bernardino's statistics tell the story.

She's second on the team in batting average (.425), runs (36), hits (48) and on-base percentage (.492). The 18-year-old is also first on the team in triples (three) and an underappreciated category - times hit by pitch (eight).

"I always get hit by a pitch. I don't know, I hate it," she says. "Gets me on base though, helps the team."

Bernardino had a solid junior season as well, batting .384.

But her biggest contributions in 2007 were felt in the postseason.

For all Taylor did, Bernardino showed how important the rest of the team was as well.

In the ninth inning of a scoreless game against Marina High in last year's Division I quarterfinals and with runners on first and second, Marina's Erin Cuevas singled to left-center field.

Bernardino collected the ball and threw a strike to Valencia catcher Amy Moore.

The ball arrived a split-second before the charging runner and Moore tagged her out.

Valencia went on to win the game in the 10th inning.

In the championship game against Hart in another scoreless tie, Bernardino singled to lead off the fifth inning against a stingy Destiny Rodino.

Three batters later she would score the game's lone and winning run on an Alyssa Ishibashi two-out single.

"I've always liked being under pressure," Bernardino says. "I usually come through more when I'm under pressure. I love it. It's what I live for."

There was certainly pressure early on this season when the Vikings defended their title in the prestigious Tournament of Champions in Bullhead City, Ariz.

Bernardino responded, going 9-for-16 at the plate and scoring 11 runs in five games.

Valencia won the tournament - Lee says Bernardino carried the team.

There couldn't be any more pressure than in today's title game.

But it doesn't make the Vikings' center fielder and No. 2 hitter nervous.

This will be the third title game for the four-year varsity player.

"I think everyone sees us as being the underdog," Bernardino says. "I really think we can do it this Saturday. I think we're going to shock a lot of people. We've already shocked people that we've made it this far."

Bernardino won't be playing her last softball game today.

She has a scholarship to play at the University of Memphis.

She says she wants to be a psychologist.

Fittingly, Bernardino says, she wants to help people.

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