AURORA — Claire Nibbe’s popup appeared to be headed for no-man’s land, the hitter’s haven just beyond the outstretched gloves of the infielders.
With the tying runs headed home from second and third at Aurora Sports Park, Nibbe’s shallow fly was clearly over the head of Pueblo East second baseman Cheyenne Talmadge.
Eagles right fielder Daniella Maestas was charging, however, and swept in to make the catch. And just like that, Erie’s season was over Saturday with a 6-4 loss to the top-seeded Eagles in the Class 4A semifinals.
“It’s hard just being your last game, especially as a senior,” said Nibbe, who finished 2 for 4 with an RBI. “I love these girls so much, so that final moment is really tough. But I’m proud of all of them.”
The fourth-seeded Tigers (19-5) were playing catch-up throughout against the undefeated Eagles, who went on to defeat Niwot for the state title later in the day.
“I think in a day or two our girls will recognize what type of season they had and all that they accomplished,” Erie coach Bob Bledsoe said. “But it’s hard to have a dream and get that close, then have the door slammed.”
After taking a 1-0 lead in the second when Amanda Ochoa scored from second after a wild throw, the Tigers played from behind throughout. Pueblo East scored three in the bottom of the third and pushed the lead to 4-1 on a sacrifice fly by Angela Eickelman in the fourth.
Erie chipped away, but Eickelman’s two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth made it 6-3 and turned out to produce a gigantic pair of insurance runs.
The Tigers didn’t fold, as Sonoma Toot, who just this week was cleared to play, led off the seventh with a double. Ally Romey produced an RBI single with one out, and pitcher Carrie Clarke followed with a walk. But Eagles pitcher Katie Orona got Kaitlyn Glaze to fly out to center before retiring Nibbe for the final out.
“We competed until the very last pitch, when the game was still teetering,” Bledsoe said. “We drop that hit in and it’s a tie ballgame.”
Clarke persevered against the left-handed Orona, who struck out six and was one of the hardest throwers the Tigers have seen this season. Orona finished the season 17-0 after beating Niwot.
Uplifting for Erie was the return of Toot, who broke her tibia and fibula in the summer while playing club softball with Arvada-based Colorado Next Level. Toot played in all three state games and went 2 for 3 Saturday.
“It was amazing to be back because I had to sit on the bench most the time and watch my team,” Toot said. “I had to just use my voice to cheer, so it was very nice to be a physical attribute on the field.”
Toot, a junior, had to be replaced on the bases because she’s not at full speed yet. On Friday, she contributed an RBI single in a first-round win against Mountain View.
“It was amazing to participate at state, because it’s a huge part of high school softball,” she said.
Erie had won 10 straight entering the contest and advanced one round farther than last season. In three seasons in 4A, the Tigers have advanced to at least the quarterfinals each season, including a title in 2010.
The Tigers took some solace in pushing an undefeated top seed to the brink.
“It’s a great feeling to know that we held them really close when they’ve been blowing people out of the water,” Nibbe said.
The Tigers will lose five seniors — Nibbe, Clarke, Ochoa, Sammi Grenier and Hannah Goodard — but maintain a strong nucleus of youth. But that’s for later consideration. Erie first has to recuperate from Saturday.
“Every team is going to have this feeling except for the team that wins the championship,” Bledsoe said. “When you give so much of yourself towards a goal and you come up a little bit short, it’s a significant letdown and it takes a little while to get over. But then you can reflect.”
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Pueblo East 6, Erie 4
At Aurora Sports Park
Erie (19-5) 010 011 1 — 4 7 4
Pueblo East (23-0-1) 003 102 X — 6 9 2
W — Orona (16-0). L — Clarke (13-3)
Erie hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Steinhauer 3-0-0-0, Romey 1-0-1-1, Clarke 3-0-1-0, Glaze 4-1-1-0, Nibbe 4-0-2-1, Maul 2-0-0-0, Ochoa 2-1-0-0, Foster 2-0-0-0, Toot 3-0-2-0, Fisher 0-2-0-0, Kudrna 3-0-0-0. Totals 27-4-7-2. 2B — Toot. SB — Clarke, Glaze.
Pueblo East hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Talmadge 4-1-2-0, Eickelman 4-1-2-2, Laughlin 3-1-1-0, Mimmich 3-1-0-0, Morales 4-1-2-1, Lopez 2-0-0-0, Orona 3-0-1-0, Maestas 2-0-0-0, Garza 3-1-1-0, Ramos 0-0-0-0. Totals 28-6-9-3. 2B — Orona, Garza. HR — Eickelman (one on in 6th). SB — Talmadge.
Erie pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Clarke 6-9-6-3-3-4.
Pueblo East pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Orona 7-7-4-2-3-6.