Class of 2022 pitcher Riley Nielson struck out a career-high 26, allowing only three hits in a complete-game performance in which she also hit the game-winning RBI double in the bottom of the 15th inning to propel Sabino to a 1-0 victory against Empire in a historic 3A state semifinals game on Friday night at Amphitheater High School.
“Riley’s everything; there’s a reason she’s one of the best in the state,” said Sabino head coach Kyle Howell. “There’s a reason she’ll be a Division 1 athlete. That’s the best individual performance I’ve ever seen.”
No. 1 ranked Sabino (19-1) advances to play No. 3 ranked Payson (20-3) in the 3A state championship game at 11:30 a.m. at Hillenbrand Stadium on Monday.
Empire’s Vanessa Candito, and Vanessa Brink struck out a combined 23 in a pitcher’s duel marathon that seemed like it may never end, and who really wanted it to?
If the AIA kept softball records, the 49 combined strikeouts in the game would probably be a state record, if not, really close to one.
The game was a seesaw battle of pitching dominance from the circle.
Candito fanned 18 Sabino batters and allowed only four hits in 10 innings, before Brink, who struck out five, came in to relieve her for the final five innings of the game.
But it was Nielson’s incredible 26 strikeout night, and game-winning RBI that eventually stole the show.
In the bottom of the 15th inning, senior Izzy Armijo hit a ground ball single, and a couple of pitches later was brought home for the winning run when Nielson hit a fly ball to center field that landed for a double. It was her only hit of the game in seven at-bats.
As Armijo came in for the winning run, the roar from the Sabercats’ fans was so loud it might have been heard from Sabino’s campus over 10 miles away across Tucson.
Armijo finished the game with a single, a double, and the game’s winning run for Sabino.
The pressure of the situation could be felt in the air with every pitch and swing as the innings tallied up upon one another with the game knotted up at zero, but Nielson must have had ice in her veins, because she wasn’t feeling it.
“I know my defense had my back and offensively we were gonna get it done so I was just kind of throwing for them and throwing for my team,” Nielson said.
Nielson was elated and a bit winded after hitting the game-winning RBI to advance the Sabercats to the state championship game.
“It’s awesome, I mean, I’m so out of breath right now,” said Nielson. “It’s just awesome to be able to go play at Hillenbrand Stadium.”
Howell was in awe of the pitching performances from both teams.
“Those two pitchers they (Empire) have are both all-state kids and there’s a reason why,” Howell said. “And frankly Riley, just held on longer. It was a tremendous, tremendous game.”
Howell didn’t put too much pressure on the Sabercats, letting them play their way to the state championship game.
“You know they were pretty motivated,” said Howell. “I just kept telling them we’ve had more chances, we’re close, we’re there, don’t give up and don’t allow fake momentum to take over. Just stay with what’s got you to this point.
“If it’s good enough, we’ll pull it off, if it’s not, this is still the best game we’ve ever been a part of.”
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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.