TEMPE — For the third time in a row, the Sabino Sabercats are the 3A softball state champions.
Taking place at ASU’s Farrington Stadium in Tempe on Friday afternoon, the top-ranked Sabercats were able to work their way to an 8-0 victory over the No. 2 Winslow Bulldogs to claim the 2022 title.
“They made their adjustments, they talked to each other the entire game, and it produced,” Sabino coach Cyndi Cubillas said.
Cubillas and the Sabercats knew nothing was going to be handed to them. Expecting it to be a tight game, she knew her team would have to earn everything against the Bulldogs and really work to pick up the win.
Senior pitcher Riley Nielsen started off with a solid first inning in the circle, quickly picking up three outs and sending the Sabercats back to the dugout.
Starting off the batting order in the bottom of the first inning for Sabino was junior Jesamin Aguilar with a lead-off double. After Aguilar advanced to third on a bunt, a sac-fly from Nielsen allowed Aguilar to cross home, giving Sabino an early 1-0 lead.
Nielsen continued dominating from the circle throughout the second, third and fourth innings, going three up, three down every time.
Sabino’s offense wasn’t doing much, either, until an absolute bomb from junior Gianna Pancost in the bottom of the fourth gave Sabino a 2-0 lead.
The Sabercats continued to dominate defensively, with Nielsen again sending the batters down in order in both the fifth and the sixth innings.
Looking to let loose and get the bats swinging a little more, the Sabercats knew it was time to strike. Nielsen got things started with a single, with sophomore Shyanne Duke subbed in as a runner. Later on, senior Ashley Stewart hit an RBI double to make it 3-0 in the bottom of the sixth with one out.
Winslow called a mound meeting to attempt keeping things under control, but Sabino was already too far into the mind of Winslow. Junior Bailey Nichols was next up to bat, where she followed up with an RBI-double of her own to make it 4-0.
Junior Reese McFarland was next in the lineup, where another double prompted Winslow to reconvene at the mound again.
While the Bulldogs picked up the second out from a pop fly, the end of the inning wouldn’t come without more runs.
During an at bat by senior Yesenia Romero, a wild pitch allowed both Nichols and McFarland to steal home, extending the lead to 6-0 before Romero wound up getting a base hit. Aguilar followed up the base hit with a monsterous two-run homer to make it 8-0 before the end of the inning.
“I was so excited,” Aguilar said. “I just kept thinking ‘Oh my God, I just hit a home run in the state championship.’ It just felt so good for me.”
“She works so hard, and I think I was more excited not so much because of what it meant to us as a team and the score, but because it paid off for her,” Cubillas said, discussing Aguilar’s sixth inning at bat.
“When you have a player that finds those little successes, and they finally can reach everything they’re working for, what more can you ask for as a coach?”
Nielsen’s precise pitching continued, and despite almost pitching a perfect game, the second to last batter was able to get on base as they were watching the ball toe the foul line.
“[Nielsen] still pitched a heck of a game,” Cubillas said. “I just can’t wait to see what she’s gonna do next year.”
However, closing on a high note, the Sabercats were able to turn a double-play on the next batter to end the game.
“Well, you know, our little second baseman ended our state championship game last year,” Cubillas said. “She made the third out, as well, so I think it just goes to show they’re gonna go hard from first pitch to last pitch and they’re gonna give everything they can.”
Rushing onto the field, the team started celebrating at home plate before being awarded their trophy at the pitchers mound as they all gathered around.
“I’m feeling pretty good about my performance,” Nielsen said. “I think a lot of the credit has to go to my catcher [Pancost]. She’s just a workhorse back there. She calls the game, and she’s amazing.”
Not only is it the third consecutive state championship for the program; The Sabercats have managed to do it with different coaches at the helm each time. Kyle Howell was the coach last year and Chris Stainer in 2019 (the 2020 season was canceled because of COVID-19).
While Cubillas was a member of the coaching staff last year, she was not promoted to head coach until this season.
“We had Coach Cyndi as our assistant coach last year,” Aguilar said. “So she knows us, and we know her. She trusts us and we trust her.”
For Cubillas, the chance to return to state meant a lot.
Cubillas explained she tore her hamstring last season the day before the championship game, so she was on a lot of pain medication at the time and didn’t really get to enjoy being in the moment. This year, she said she finally got to take it all in as a coach, mentioning how special this was for her.
“It was amazing,” Cubillas said, getting emotional. “It was absolutely amazing. These girls are incredible, our staff is incredible. To be able to do this with three of my former players is an incredible feeling. It really is.”