AURORA — The degree of difficulty increased exponentially, as to be expected in a state tournament.
And after a run replete with narrow wins and sterling finishes, the Niwot softball team finally ran into a pitcher it couldn’t crack and a team the Cougars couldn’t overcome.
Their season ended Saturday with a 4-2 loss to Pueblo East in the Class 4A state championship game at Aurora Sports Park, a contest in which the teams entered with a combined one loss.
Despite two late rallies, the Cougars (23-2) fell short and closed the book on the Nickie Blue era.
“It was a great season for these girls,” Niwot coach Bobby Matthews said. “There’s been a lot of great Niwot teams, but this one made it this far. And we’re young.”
Niwot’s second ever appearance in the title game produced a much more riveting contest than the first time. That was in 1998, when the Cougars were clobbered 8-0 by Lakewood.
A dominating season for the South Carolina-bound Blue (21-2) culminated with 287 strikeouts and an ERA below 0.50. It was one of the most dominant pitching seasons in recent memory in any classification.
“I’m proud of the way we kept fighting,” an emotional Blue said. “I think I’ve definitely left the program in good hands with our young players and hopefully I’ve given them a different way to look at the game.”
Pueblo East pitcher Katie Orona (17-0) stymied the Cougars early with precise command and a fastball in the low-60-mph range. The left-handed junior struck out five of the Cougars’ first six batters en route to retiring the first 12 in order.
The Pueblo East offense, meanwhile, scored in only one inning, but it was enough. The speedy Eagles (24-0-1) plated four runs in the third, the first two on a two-run single by shortstop Kelsey Laughlin, the next two on Niwot errors.
An infield single by Cheyenne Talmadge early in the inning, which narrowly beat Blue’s throw to first, served as the catalyst.
“They didn’t do it with power shots,” Matthews said. “They did it with precise shots and doing the right things, fundamental small ball.”
Blue broke up Orona’s perfect game with a double down the left-field line to lead off the fifth. The Cougars didn’t score until the sixth, when Bailey Kleespies singled, stole second and scored on an RBI single by Katrina Hunt.
Niwot brought the tying run to the plate later in the inning in the form of Blue, but after being burned for the earlier double, Orona stayed on the outer half of the plate and got Blue to fly out to right to end the threat.
“Pitchers learn from their mistakes,” Blue said. “And she did a good job of doing that with me.”
Cougars freshman Brooklynn DeLozier led off the seventh with a homer to left-center and the Niwot dugout was jumping. But Orona reset and retired the final three hitters to end it.
“Actually, I didn’t know anything about them other than that they have a good pitcher,” said Orona, who struck out eight. “You kind of see what they swing at and what they don’t and go from there. After the homer, I just kind of refocused my mind, talked to my defense and just threw.”
Niwot advanced to the title game by defeating Wheat Ridge 1-0 earlier Saturday in the semifinals.
Blue’s RBI single in the first, which scored Hunt, stood up as the only run. The Cougars managed only two hits in that one, but Blue’s nine strikeouts helped eliminate a Wheat Ridge squad that had won three of the past four 4A crowns.
The Farmers had runners on first and second in the seventh, but Blue retired Farmers third-place hitter Analece Apodaca on a popup to end it. It turned out to be Blue’s final win in a Niwot uniform.
“I don’t think a pitcher, statistically, has had a year like her in a long time, including Shelby Babcock,” Matthews said, referring to the former Legacy pitcher now at Arizona. “I think she’s going to turn some heads in the college ranks.”
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PUEBLO EAST 4, NIWOT 2
At Aurora Sports Park
Niwot (23-2) 000 001 1 — 2 4 3
Pueblo East (24-0-1) 004 000 0 — 4 6 1
W — Orona (17-0). L — Blue (21-2)
Niwot hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Kleespies 3-1-1-0, Hunt 3-0-1-1, Artzer 3-0-0-0, Blue 3-0-1-0, DeLozier 3-1-1-1, Waidler 3-0-0-0, Johnson 3-0-0-0, Supino 3-0-0-0, Meadows 2-0-0-0, Baca 0-0-0-0. Totals 26-2-4-2. 2B — Blue. HR — DeLozier (solo in 7th). SB — Kleespies.
Pueblo East hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Talmadge 2-1-1-0, Eickelman 3-0-1-0, Laughlin 3-1-1-2, Minnich 2-1-0-0, Rosales 3-0-0-0, Lopez 3-0-1-0, Orona 3-0-1-0, Maestas 3-0-1-0, Garza 2-1-0-0. Totals 24-4-6-2. 2B — Orona. SB — Rosales.
Niwot pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Blue 6-6-4-2-2-8.
Pueblo East pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Orona 7-4-2-2-0-8.
NIWOT 1, WHEAT RIDGE 0
At Aurora Sports Park (semifinals)
Wheat Ridge (20-4-1) 000 000 0 — 0 6 2
Niwot (23-1) 100 000 0 — 1 2 0
W — Blue (21-1). L — Salbato (20-4)
Wheat Ridge hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Mathewson 3-0-1-0, Torres 4-0-1-0, Apodaca 3-0-1-0, Nelson 3-0-1-0, Haiges 2-0-0-0, Trengove 3-0-0-0, Wilkie 3-0-0-0, Salbato 3-0-1-0, Sand 2-0-1-0. Totals 26-0-6-0. 2B — Nelson.
Niwot hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Kleespies 3-0-0-0, Hunt 2-1-0-0, Artzer 2-0-1-0, Blue 2-0-1-1, DeLozier 2-0-0-0, Waidler 2-0-0-0, Johnson 2-0-0-0, Supino 2-0-0-0, Meadows 2-0-0-0, Baca 0-0-0-0. Totals 19-1-2-1.
Wheat Ridge pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Salbato 6-2-1-0-1-6.
Niwot pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Blue 7-6-0-0-2-9.