The long road is over. Forty-two teams from Southern Arizona started on a journey some three months ago. Of those 42, 26 made the playoffs. Of those 26, four won a state softball championship. Benson won the 2A championship, Empire took the 3A title, Canyon del Oro claimed the 4A trophy and Cienega beat Sahuaro 4-1 Monday night to win the 5A championship.
6A Tucson took third place and St. David was impressive in a 1A quarterfinal appearance. The list of semifinalists from Southern Arizona is also impressive with San Manuel (2A), Sabino (3A) and Salpointe (4A) representing but the last night of the season belonged to Cienega and Sahuaro.
Farrington Stadium, home of the Sun Devils, played host to the top-seeded Bobcats of Cienega (28-7) and to the Cougars (27-11), coming in seeded No. 3. Senior standout Lexy Coons (18-5) took the circle for Sahuaro and freshman sensation Mariah Lopez (17-3) took the ball for Cienega.
Junior outfielder Kaitlyn Anderson put the Bobcats on the board in the bottom of the first, literally. Anderson hit a two-out shot off the netting protecting the scoreboard just beyond the outfield fence to give her team a 1-0 lead and senior Jenessa Jarvis hit one over in the second inning.
The Bobcats are known more for their speed, but the long ball, plus a spectacular double play by Miranda Carley, was the difference in this game.
Cienega took a 4-0 lead in the third after Abby Doughty doubled to lead off the bottom of the third, Shae Bushey knocked her in and then Carley followed that up with an RBI double but the game-saving play by Carley came in the top of the fourth.
Sahuaro freshman Bella Goerke doubled, Danielle Jamieson singled and Brianna Jackson brought in Goerke to cut the Bobcat lead down to 4-1. Robyn Oppel came up next and she laced a shot up the middle, but Carley dove to her right and snagged the shot inches off the ground, set herself and then threw to second base for the double play. Had that ball found its way to the fence, the Cougars may have scored two runs with the tying run standing at second base with no outs.
“It happened so fast,” Carley explained. “I just went for it out of instinct. I was hyped. It got us out of that rally and they are a good team.”
The Cougars put up one more fight in the top of the seventh thanks to a one-out walk issued to Ari Gomez and a perfect bunt from Lauren Wedman but Lopez induced two ground balls to pick up the win.
Lopez limited Sahuaro to six hits and one earned run in the game while Coons collected five strikeouts in the loss. The Grand Canyon commit finished her impressive career with 595 strike outs with 55 wins and only nine losses. Much will be made about one of her few losses, but more should be made about the many wins.
“I love all the girls on this team and I will never forget them,” Coons said. “And I will miss coach (Don) Bacon the most. No matter what I was going through in games or in life, he was always there for me. He was the biggest influence. He made me respectable and he made me confident. He always told me to have faith.”
Bacon is a legendary sports figure from the Tucson area with a state championship playing basketball for Tucson High, a national championship playing baseball for Phoenix College and almost 30 years of coaching at Sahuaro.
On the other side, Cienega head coach Eric Tatham won a baseball championship playing for the Badgers and he joined an exclusive club when he led Cienega to a state title Monday night. It was his third championship since 2010, only five others have won three or more titles. Lopez will be in the circle for three more years, so there might be more hardware in his future.
Former Sahauro coach Billy Lopez leads everyone from Southern Arizona with six championships, but one has to believe current head coach Jeff Fowler will pick up his first title with the Cougars soon. Fowler lost four seniors to graduation, including Coons, but the majority of this team returns next year.
And the long journey begins again.