Riley Nielson again took center stage and Sabino used her clutch performance to win another 3A state championship.
Just three days following Sabino’s momentous 15-inning victory over Empire in the state semifinals, in which Nielson struck out a career-high 26 batters and hit the game-winning RBI, she led the Sabercats to a 4-1 victory over Payson in the championship game at Hillenbrand Stadium on Monday afternoon.
The victory for No. 1-seeded Sabino (20-1) over No. 3 Payson (20-4) marks the fourth state championship in the history of the program, and the second consecutive title (last season was cancelled due to COVID-19) for the Sabercats.
Nielson, a Class of 2022 standout who controlled the game from the circle and fanned 10 batters, got some help on offense in crucial moments from juniors Yesenia Romero and Ashley Stewart to shut the door on a Payson team that could never really sustain any momentum.
With the game knotted at zero in the bottom of the second inning, sophomore Gianna Pancost hit a double to center field.
She was substituted for courtesy runner Rheyana Pina, a senior who then advanced to third base on a single by Stewart in which she barely beat out the throw to first. Stewart stole second base, and two outs later, both Pina and Stewart scored from a clutch two-run line-drive by the No. 8 batter Romero that flew over the right fielder’s head, putting Sabino up 2-0.
Romero was composed and ready for the moment when Payson’s Raci Miranda threw her a pitch she had been waiting for.
“I try not to think of anything when I’m up to bat,” said Romero. “Usually I get in my head, so I tried to just clear my head, and not really think. I was working on outside pitch all day yesterday, so she threw that, and it was right there.”
🏆🏆 SABINO WINS!!🏆🏆 💍💍 pic.twitter.com/LlhlC1S6Ep
— Sabino HS Softball (@sabino_softball) May 17, 2021
Payson got on the board in the top of the fourth inning, in what would be the Longhorns’ only run of the game, on a solo home run from Bree Hall. Three batters later, Nielson was able to retire the side.
Nielson wasn’t rattled by the home run which could have changed the trajectory of the game. She remained solid in the circle for the Sabercats.
“I just know like, ‘So what?’, next pitch,’ Nielson said. “The coaches really instilled that in my brain. Our field at Sabino is small, so solo shots are pretty common, but they don’t really mean much in the long term.”
Sabino gave itself more breathing room in the bottom of the fourth inning when Romero hit an RBI single that brought in Stewart for a run to put the Sabercats up 3-1 on Payson. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Stewart hit an RBI single that scored sophomore Annie Dojaquez for the final run of the game.
Miranda finished with the game 10 strikeouts for Payson.
Sabino’s first-year head coach Kyle Howell was particularly impressed with the way Romero came up big in key moments for the Sabercats in the state championship game.
— Andy Morales (@AndyMorales8) May 17, 2021
“I mean, honestly, coming into today she had struggled,” said Howell. “She made huge adjustments. You could see it from the time we started hitting in the cage today that she was kind of locked in.
“That’s such a clutch performance. The two-out hit after Rheyana comes off the bench, and gets a bunt down, that was huge.”
Howell has been impressed with the way his team has performed all season.
.@sabino_softball claims its fourth state title (second consecutively because season canceled last year due to COVID-19):
1991 — Bill Belt as coach (23-3 record)
2005 — Galen Paton (33-1)
2019 — Christine Stainer (22-2)
2021 — Kyle Howell (20-1)
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) May 17, 2021
“It’s been really, really good,” Howell said. “The kids have responded well and have had a high energy, high intensity. It’s been fun.”
As for Nielson, Howell, also the school’s athletic director, has been amazed by her demeanor off the field, and her talent on the field.
“Riley is just a genuine star,” he said. “Very level-headed, always caring about other people, but you give her the ball and you see a little bit of a different animal.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writing intern Kevin Murphy was born and raised in Tucson, and has followed Arizona Wildcats athletics since childhood. He is currently attending Pima Community College where he writes for the Aztec Press. Next semester he will be attending the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU where he will work towards a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies.