AURORA — Though the Erie softball team was the only undefeated club remaining on the final day of the Class 4A state tournament, the Tigers were still the underdogs once they reached the championship game.
The last opponent standing between the Tigers and a state title was Valor Christian. Unfortunately for Erie, it has been some time since the two-time defending state champion Eagles moved aside for another team to take the reigns and weren't ready to surrender the mantle at Aurora Sports Complex on Saturday.
There were moments when they Tigers threatened the reigning champions but the Eagles eventually won 3-1 to officially extend their dominance for another year.
"It was super, super disappointing but I'm proud of my girls," Tigers ace Rio Sanchez said. "They put everything out there on the field, they worked and they tried to fight but it just didn't happen. That's how softball is. There were a lot of emotions flying everywhere and it was an amazing season but sometimes it's even harder when you lose this one right here."
Valor Christian took an early lead when Erica Mann singled to drive in leadoff hitter Savannah Behabetz in the top of the first inning. The Eagles pushed their lead to two runs with a Madalyn Mitchell solo home run in the fourth. Responding quickly, the Tigers got a run back when Sanchez hit a one-out double and courtesy runner Teagan Brand scored on a line drive single from Hannah Hackney in the bottom of the fourth. Behabetz scored the Eagles' third run in the fifth on a wild pitch.
Though they trailed the entire game, the Tigers had their chances. They had runners at first and second with two outs in the fourth, fifth and sixth inning but each time Eagles junior pitcher Alexandria Kilponen pitched her way out of trouble. Kilponen finished with 13 strikeouts and allowed just five hits.
With a runner on first in the fourth inning, Tigers senior Maddie Foster hit a ball that appeared to clear the fence in the left field corner but it was ruled to have been just foul. If ruled fair and a home run, the hit would have given the Tigers a one-run lead.
"We started off kind of tough and that put us in a hole early," Foster said. "We gave it our best. We never gave up. It's too bad that one didn't count."
The Tigers escaped a late scare in a 6-4 semifinals win over Air Academy to reach the state title game. Sanchez allowed just one earned run and struck out 13 batters in the semifinals. Foster also had a three-run home run in the game.
Saturday's loss was somewhat reminiscent of the 1-0 defeat the Tigers suffered at the Eagles' hands in last year's state semifinals. But Tigers head coach Harold Simmons, who served as an assistant coach for much of a magical run that saw the Tigers win 10 state titles in 11 years from 2000-2010, said he felt like the Tigers showed themselves to be a championship-caliber team even in defeat.
"It was a fun day," Simmons said. "We played in this game so many times with the big guy (Bob Bledsoe) around so we know how hard it is to get here. You tip your cap to Valor because we've had this on our calendar for 365 days and there's no amount of work that we haven't put it. We poured our hearts out today and so did they. That's what it takes to beat a team like us and the type of girls we have."
Erie 6, Air Academy 4
At Aurora Sports Park
Air Academy 101 000 2 — 4 7 1
Erie 033 000 0 — 6 7 5
W — Sanchez. L — Horn.
Air Academy hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Karsen Romines 3-3-3-0, Cassidy Horn 4-1-1-0, Payton Romines 4-0-1-1, Julia Elbert 4-0-1-0, Sheridan Wayne 4-0-0-0, Amanda Smith 4-0-0-0, Rachel Noel 3-0-1-0, Katy Cooley 3-0-0-0, Shannon Andrew 3-0-0-0. Totals 32-4-7-1. 2B — K. Romines. SB — K. Romines.
Erie hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Kat Sackett 2-0-1-0, Rio Sanchez 3-0-1-0, Hannah Hackney 2-1-1-0, Kara Kovetz 2-1-0-0, Maddie Foster 3-2-1-3, Lynsey Bauchert 3-1-1-2, Elise Capra 3-0-0-0, Jade Phillips 3-0-1-1, Morgan Weber 2-0-1-0, Sloane Quijas 1-0-0-0, Teagan Brand 0-1-0-0. Totals 24-6-7-6. 2B — Bauchert. HR — Foster (two on in third). SB — Foster.
Air Academy pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Cassidy Horn 6-7-6-4-2-4.
Erie pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Rio Sanchez 7-7-4-1-1-13.
Valor Christian 3, Erie 1
At Aurora Sports Park
Valor Christian 100 110 0 — 3 6 0
Erie 000 100 0 — 1 5 3
W — Kilponen. L — Sanchez.
Valor Christian hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Savannah Behabetz 4-2-2-0, Abby Zuschlag 3-0-1-0, Lauren Foster 2-0-0-0, Erica Mann 3-0-1-1, Katie Meredith 3-0-0-0, Alexandria Kilponen 3-0-1-0, Madalyn Mitchell 3-1-1-1, Skylar Vaughn 2-0-0-0, Hannah Hollander 3-0-0-0. Totals 26-3-6-2. HR — Mitchell (solo in fourth).
Erie hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Kat Sackett 3-0-0-0, Rio Sanchez 3-0-1-0, Hannah Hackney 3-0-1-1, Kara Kovetz 3-0-0-0, Maddie Foster 2-0-1-0, Lynsey Bauchert 3-0-1-0, Elise Capra 3-0-0-0, Jade Phillips 3-0-1-0, Morgan Weber 3-0-0-0, Teagan Brand 0-1-0-0. Totals 26-1-5-1. 2B — Sanchez. SB — Phillips.
Valor Christian pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Alexandria Kilponen 7-5-1-1-2-13.
Erie pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Rio Sanchez 7-6-3-3-2-2.