Sabino powers past Empire 16-7 to reach 3A Softball Championship

Phoenix — It was a busy afternoon in the Valley of the Sun for several teams from Southern Arizona on Saturday as the 2022 AIA Softball Playoffs continue. With several key match-ups on deck, there was no shortage of action. However, none were as highly-anticipated as the 3A Semifinal; A grudge match between the top-ranked Sabino Sabercats and the No. 5 Empire Ravens. 

In an action-packed game, the Sabercats were able to swing their way to a 16-7 victory over the Ravens and solidify a return to state. 

“Empire is a great team,” coach Cyndi Cubillas said. “They give us a run for our money and we always have to take them seriously.”

Last year, the two put on a phenomenal 15-inning game in the 3A semifinals. The Sabercats were able to snag a 1-0 victory and advance to the finals, setting up what seemed like the perfect comeback story for Empire in this year’s tournament. Anticipating the chip on the Ravens’ shoulders, the Sabercats locked-in on the task at hand and didn’t stop grinding until the job was done. 

“Empire wasn’t going to give an inch,” Cubillas said. “If we were going to win this game, we were going to have to try to fight to take it.” 

Things got off to a quick start, where the Ravens were able to jump out to a 1-0 lead midway through the first inning. Quickly answering back, Sabino knotted things up at 1 by the end of the first inning. 

Sabino took the field to start the top of the second inning, where things were quickly wrapped up, sending the Sabercats back to bat. An error at third allowed a lead-off single for senior Ashley Stewart, setting up junior Bailey Nichols for a single, where Stewart was tossed out at second for the first out. 

Junior Reese McFarland was next at bat, where her pop fly to center left the outfielders blinded by the sun and allowed the ball to drop. Senior Madison Fillman-Moreno was next up at bat, where she was able to single while driving in a run to give Sabino a 2-1 lead. 

With runners still in scoring position and only one out, Empire had a mound meeting to try to calm things down and work its way out of the sticky situation. 

Unfortunately for the Ravens the plan backfired, as a wild pitch allowed McFarland to cross home plate. Further extending Sabino’s lead with only one out, it prompted another mound meeting in hopes of keeping things from escalating out of hand. 

While Empire was trying to keep things close, senior Yesenia Romero had other plans, hammering home a two-run bomb to make it 5-1.

Juniors Jesamin Aguilar, Riley McFarland and senior Riley Nielson were the next three consecutive batters, loading the bases. Junior Gianna Pancost followed, where she was walked, advancing Aguilar across home and extending the lead to 6-1. 

Returning to the top of the batting rotation, Steward knocked in an RBI single to make it 7-1, forcing the Ravens to make a pitching change. 

On the mound for the Ravens to close out the second inning was freshman Kendall Freidinger. Under pressure, she was able to get the final outs against her first two batters. 

Empire wasn’t happy with how big of a lead Sabino had gained, sending them out ready to let the bats go. Ready to start the rally, freshman Abigail Zsitvay opened up the third inning with a lead-off double. Freshman Angelina Dehler was next in line, following up with a single to put two runners in scoring position. 

A double from senior Vanessa Candito sent Zsitvay across home to start chopping away at the lead, making it 7-2. Following a strikeout, the Ravens were able to put up another run with Dehler stealing home on a wild pitch. 

Working to close out the inning, the Sabercats were able to pick up their second out, but they wouldn’t be able to escape before giving up two more RBIs from freshman Eva Peace and junior Haley Ehlert to make it 7-5. 

Sabino was able to add on some cushion with a solo bomb by Aguilar in the bottom of the third, making it 8-5 as the Sabercats took the field to play defense once again. 

Countering back with a run of their own, the Ravens were able to keep things close off an RBI single from Candito to make it 8-6 going into the bottom of the fourth inning. 

After the Sabercats were able to get the batting rotation started with a lead-off single from sophomore Shyanne Duke, Empire made yet another change at the mound. To no avail, the Sabercats continued running up the score, with Pancost hammering in an RBI triple to make it 9-6 with no outs. 

Before bringing the inning to a close, Sabino was able to add another insurance run to the board on an RBI single from Stewart to make it 10-6 at the end of the fourth inning. 

Eager to counter back, Empire opened up the top of the fifth with a lead-off double from junior Ariel Schulzkump. Ehlert was next at bat, where she also doubled to send Schulzkump home and tighten the score with no outs. One run would be all the Ravens were able to get, though, as the remainder of the fifth inning came to a close quickly. 

Answering with a solo bomb of her own, Aguilar was able to give the Sabercats more cushion going into the sixth inning, leading 11-7. 

The top of the sixth saw the Ravens go down in order, making for a quick turnaround and really shifting the momentum behind Sabino. As the Sabercats prepared to bat for what would hopefully be the final time on the night, this was their chance to really close things out. 

Leading things off for Sabino was sophomore Renee Williams, followed by Stewart, who both had back-to-back singles to start off the bottom of the sixth inning. Nichols was third, where she helped drive home Williams and Stewart with a two-run RBI double. Senior Madison Fillman-Moreno followed with an RBI triple, making it 14-7 in the bottom of the sixth with one out. 

It wasn’t until Sabino had taken a 16-7 lead that Empire was finally able to bring the bottom of the sixth inning to a close and put all their eggs in a last-ditch rally attempt. 

By that time, though, it was too late for the Ravens. The Sabercats were only three outs away from winning it, and nothing was going to stop them from closing things out. Picking up the final three outs to secure the win for her team, Nielsen stayed out on the bump for the duration of the game, showing her ability to overcome mental obstacles and adversity. 

“We talked about [the mental game] probably around the fifth inning,” Cubillas said. “When she came in I said, ‘Okay, now this is where the mental game comes in. We can’t leave it up to umpires or anybody else. You’re going DI next year. This is what’s going to separate you.”

For Cubillas, it was an emotional moment. Overjoyed, she struggled to find the words for not only how proud she was of the team but what it felt like in that moment. 

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Cubillas said, starting to tear up. “These girls have worked hard all year to play in the final game, so I’m super proud of them.”

Saturday evening also happened to be Prom at Sabino. On top of getting to enjoy a fun ride home, the ladies also were able to go out and enjoy themselves afterwards. 

“It’s gonna be a great way for them to celebrate a tough win,” Cubillas said. 

Sabino will have a few days to practice this week before returning to Phoenix for the State Championships against No. 2 Winslow on Friday, May 13 at 3 pm. The Championship game will be held at ASU’s Farrington Softball Stadium. 

Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @LittWithBritt

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