Elk Grove High School softball coach Jeff Alexander has been a playoff regular for the last 10 seasons.
But he still gets nervous for "Suicide Saturday" the single-elimination first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs.
"This is our ninth trip here in 10 years," Alexander said. "All week long, I didn't have a warm, fuzzy feeling. There's always the unknown when you play teams you haven't seen."
Alexander, however, had a much better feeling after his Thundering Herd beat Lincoln of Stockton 3-0 Saturday.
For Elk Grove, that means some extra breathing room in the highly competitive tournament as it switches to double elimination after the first round.
Alexander had a right to be worried. He starts six underclassmen, including sophomore pitcher Kimberly Wilburn. But against Lincoln, they played like veterans.
Sophomore Serena Sandhu, whom Alexander elevated from the junior varsity late in the season, hit a two-run homer; Wilburn had a sacrifice fly, scattered five hits and struck out three; and the Thundering Herd made only one error.
"I've got a big bark and big bite normally during the season, but at this point, the kids have to play the game," Alexander said. "I tell them, 'I ride you all year long to prepare for this day.' "
Despite a few early jitters, Ponderosa junior pitcher Paris Hallums was prepared, too.
She struck out 11, walked two and allowed only one hit in the Bruins' 4-0 win over Vacaville.
"You definitely have to be on your A game," she said. "I was really excited at the start because this is my first time in the playoffs. But after the first inning, I started to feel comfortable. I've seen the hitters; I get into the groove.
"There's lots of good ballplayers here, and it's nice to be out here with the best of them," continued Hallums, whose Bruins lost 8-4 to Elk Grove later Saturday and will play Tokay in Monday's losers' bracket game.
For a team such as Sheldon, the defending D-I champion, its first playoff game was less about nerves and more about having something to prove.
The Huskies lost their last game in the Delta River League and backed into the postseason as a No. 3 seed.
So Sheldon shredded Central California Conference champion Pitman of Modesto 16-1 in the opener, then crushed Tokay 18-1 later in the day.
"The first game is huge because it's really a new season for everyone," said Sheldon coach Mary Jo Truesdale, whose Huskies play Elk Grove in Monday's winners' bracket game. "It's now an even playing field."