3A state softball playoffs: Sabino, Empire set for rematch of epic semifinal game from last year

Sabino senior Riley Nielson and Empire senior Vanessa Candito each had overpowering performances on Friday at the Rose Mofford Complex at Phoenix to create a rematch of an epic game between the two teams from last year’s state playoffs.

Nielson pitched a five-inning perfect game in the Sabercats’ 10-0 win over American Leadership Academy – Gilbert North, and Candito had 18 strikeouts with no walks in a 1-0 win in eight innings over Snowflake on Friday.

Although they are both teams from the Tucson area, top-seeded Sabino (30-3) will play No. 5 Empire (23-9) in Phoenix at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Rose Mofford Complex. The championship game is May 13 at ASU’s Farrington Stadium.

In last year’s 5A state semifinal game won by Sabino 1-0 in 15 innings over Empire at Amphi High School, Nielson struck out 26 batters and allowed only three hits in a complete-game performance. She also had the game-winning hit in the bottom of the 15th.

Sabino’s Riley Nielson (left) and Empire’s Vanessa Candito are two of the top pitchers in the state (Photos by Andy Morales)

Candito and Vanessa Brink, who graduated last year, had a combined 23 strikeouts in the game. Candito fanned 18 Sabino batters and allowed only four hits in the first 10 innings.

Sabino went on to win the state championship.

Sabino beat Empire twice this season in close games that featured Nielson and Candito facing each other. The Sabercats won 6-4 at Empire on March 10 and 2-1 in eight innings at home April 5.

Nielson, who has signed with Southern Utah, struck out 10 and did not allow the ball to leave the infield against ALA – Gilbert North on Friday. She induced three groundouts and two lineouts.

It is the second consecutive five-inning perfect game pitched by Nielson in the playoffs. She achieved the same feat Tuesday in a 10-0 win over visiting Yuma Catholic.

Candito, headed to Regis University, allowed only two hits, both singles, to go with her 18 strikeouts and no walks against Snowflake.

Callista Drawbaugh scored Empire’s run after hitting a bunt single with one out in the eighth. She stole second and came home on Angelina Dehler’s single with two outs on a 2-2 count.

Candito struck out two batters in the bottom of the eighth before hitting a batter with a pitch. She then got the last batter to line out to third base.

Nielson went 2 for 3 with an RBI, cleanup hitter Gianna Pancost went 2 for 3 with one run and two RBIs and leadoff hitter Jesamin Aguilar finished 1 for 2 with two runs and two RBIs to lead the Sabercats, who had nine hits — all singles.

No. 14 Tanque Verde lost 6-5 against No. 6 Northwest Christian in another quarterfinal game Friday at Rose Mofford.

The Hawks, who led 4-0 in the second and 5-3 in the fifth, finish the season 16-13.

Tanque Verde was led by Paige Brady (3 for 3 with a double and two RBIs), Jessica Thompson (2 for 4 with two RBIs), Hannah Haggard (2 for 4 with a run and RBI) and Kaitlyn McLaughlin (2 for 5 with a run).

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