NORCO ---- They were locked into another one of those patented pitching battles Tuesday afternoon that had the makings of a classic high school duel.
Norco High's softball team wasn't going to budge. Vista Murrieta wouldn't crack. Extra innings seemed a given.
Then came the fifth inning, and the Broncos buckled.
A two-out throwing error led to three unearned runs, and top-seeded host Norco turned away visiting Vista Murrieta, 4-0, in a CIF Southern Section Division I semifinal.
Norco (29-2), ranked No. 1 in the country by ESPN Rise and No. 3 by MaxPreps, entered as a favorite and exited with a Division I final matchup against Corona Santiago, a 6-4 winner over Huntington Beach Edison, on tap for this weekend.
Vista Murrieta finished 23-5-1, pleased with a semifinal showing but also kicking itself for a difficult ending.
"You can't make an error against Norco," Broncos coach Dan Torres said. "If you make an error against Norco, it's going to cost you the game."
That's due, in part, to the Cougars' Nebraska-bound right-handed ace, Emily Lockman, whose only runs allowed in the last month came in the Cougars' first-round, 3-2 victory over Great Oak.
Broncos right-hander Selina Ta'amilo matched Lockman pitch for pitch into the fifth inning of a scoreless tie, when ---- with runners at first and second ---- Ta'amilo took a choppy comebacker from No. 2 hitter Abby Lockman and threw wide to first to Clarissa Flexen, who had the freshman hitter coming straight at her down the line. The ball sailed past Flexen and out of play as both Heather Smith and Kylie Reed scored for a 2-0 lead. Emily Lockman then added an RBI double to right-center for a 3-0 lead.
That was more than enough for the ace. The Broncos mustered just two hits and failed to even get a runner to second base. Lockman struck out five and walked none in the win.
"That is a great offensive lineup, and to hold them in check is a great thing," Norco coach Rick Robinson said. "We set a game plan together, and they followed the game plan. It's not about any one player having to dominate, or Emily having to strike out 15. It was about pitching the ball where we want and letting the defense make plays."
Still, Lockman looked most impressive against Michigan-bound shortstop Sierra Romero, who is among the nation's home run leaders.
The right-hander simply kept throwing to the low outside corner, and she forced Romero into an 0-for-3 day in which she didn't hit the ball out of the infield.
"I didn't make the adjustments I needed to make in my first or second at-bat," Romero said. "I finally did in my third-at-bat, but it was too late."
Ta'amilo, who has been outstanding in giving the Broncos a true ace this season ---- she entered Tuesday with a 1.11 ERA and 189 strikeouts in 157 innings ---- took the hard-luck loss after yielding four runs (one earned) in six innings. The sophomore, like most of her teammates, stands to return in 2013.
"I was looking at some of the archives and where some people were picking us to go in the playoffs," Torres said. "We were supposed to be done in the first round, yet we made it to the semis. I think this is a huge success for a very young team."
Romero, who went to the section final with the Broncos as a freshman, won't be back. But she'll leave with fond memories.
"My four years at Vista have just been amazing," she said. "I couldn't have been at a better school with a better group of girls."