AURORA — After qualifying for the past eight Class 4A state tournaments, reaching the Final Four for the first time didn't feel to the Silver Creek Raptors like a major watershed moment for the program.
It felt, in a way, like something the Raptors should have already accomplished given their sustained success for nearly a decade now.
Still, the Raptors did make their first Final Four appearance on Saturday at Aurora Sports Park. Had they avoided a few of the miscues that nullified a healthy lead in a 7-6 loss to Pueblo Central, the Raptors could have reached the state championship game for the first time.
Even after upsetting No. 1 Valor Christian in the quarterfinals the day before and riding that momentum into Day 2, the breakthrough they were truly after just wasn't in the cards for the Raptors in the fall of 2017.
But, regardless of personal expectations and goals, this year's Raptors still did something no Silver Creek softball club before them had done.
"In the beginning, we definitely struggled with wondering why we're here," Silver Creek senior Taylor Nielsen said. "And then one practice, we all sat down and said why we play the game, why we play softball. Over half of us said it's because of the amazing people we meet. After that, we came together and found the drive to work as a team and be selfless.
"We played incredible at regionals and incredible here at state. The Valor game kind of felt like a championship game and we may have let down a little bit because that was such a huge win and we thought we had it. But, oh well, it was still an amazing season."
After directing the eighth-seeded Raptors (18-5-1) on Friday while they orchestrated a 5-1 upset of three-time defending champion Valor Christian, junior Jetta Nannen was excellent both on the mound and at the plate again in the semifinals. Facing a fifth-seeded Wildcats lineup that scored 16 runs in its first two state tournament games, Nannen started the semifinal game and allowed just one earned run in six innings of work. She also went 3 for 4 at the plate, as did teammate Kayla Harper.
With Nannen sharp and the Wildcats (20-5) committing two errors in the first two innings, the Raptors led 5-1 to start the third. But the Raptors defense, one that posted a .960 fielding percentage on Friday, committed six errors and allowed six unearned runs behind Nannen over the next four innings.
"I've said all season that it's not about which team has the best players but it's about the team that plays best like a team, and we have that," Raptors head coach Ryan Beavers said. "The way they played together in this tournament was impressive. We just didn't do the little things today. Six errors and all those unearned runs hurt us. Jetta had a great outing, she really did, we just didn't play clean defense behind her and that's the way it goes at state. Good teams will take advantage and they did that."
The Wildcats scored three runs in the third inning and tied the game by scoring a run on a dropped ball with one no outs in the fifth. Aided by two more errors in the inning, the Wildcats took a 7-5 lead before Nannen and the Raptors could get out of the fifth.
With her team down to its final three outs, Nielsen singled to lead off the top of the seventh and stole second base. One out later, she scored on a sacrifice fly from Makayla Garcia but the Raptors couldn't muster the game-tying run.
They didn't go all the way like they had hoped, but the Raptors intended to take a step forward this season and they did.
"Eight other teams in 4A and 5A besides ourselves since 1999 have gone eight times in a row," Beavers said. "Today we just couldn't get over that hump and it stings. But we fought to the end."
Pueblo Central 7, Silver Creek 6
At Pueblo Sports Park
Silver Creek (18-5-1) 230 000 1 — 6 9 6
Pueblo Central (20-5) 103 030 x — 7 6 2
W — Puga. L — Nannen.
Silver Creek hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Harper 4-2-3-0, Nannen 4-0-3-2, Kuckuk 0-1-0-0, Dwyer 2-0-0-0, Green 3-0-2-2, Nielsen 4-1-1-0, Flynn 4-0-0-0, Garcia 3-1-0-1, Wager 3-0-0-0, Scott 3-2-0-0, Kuehl 1-0-0-0. Totals 31-6-9-5. 2B — Green. SB —Garcia, Nielsen, Harper.
Pueblo Central hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Trujillo 4-3-3-0, Baca 4-1-0-1, Puga 3-0-1-1, Gonzales 0-1-0-0, Espinoza 3-1-0-0, Arguello 3-0-1-0, Munoz 3-0-0-0, Amaro 3-0-1-1, Olmstead 3-0-0-0, Velasquez 3-0-0-0, Ruiz 0-1-0-0. Totals 29-7-6-3. 2B — Trujillo 2.
Silver Creek pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Nannen 6-6-7-1-0-9.
Pueblo Central pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Puga 7-9-6-3-2-5.