2024 Softball

Four-time defending 3A state champ Sabino back in playoffs with new coach, different standouts

Tucson High graduate Vanessa Arandules has Sabino at 21-7 and in the 3A state playoffs in her return as head coach of the Sabercats (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Sabino’s opportunity to defend its four consecutive 3A state championships includes one more step this season with a victory necessary in the play-in round.

When the Sabercats won their titles in 2019, 2021, 2022 and 2023 — COVID-19 claimed the 2020 season — they ran the table in four straight games each year as one of the top eight seeds in the state.

As the No. 12 seed this time around, Sabino (21-7) must win five straight games in the postseason to earn the title under new coach Vanessa Arandules.

Step One to that goal was completed with Sabino riding the arm and bat of junior Avery Nielson to a 19-2 victory Wednesday in five innings over No. 21 Pusch Ridge (10-9).

The Sabercats will learn where they will play in the first round when the brackets are released Thursday.

“Last year, we lost some studs, five seniors,” Nielson said. “This season has really been a learning experience for us. I feel like a lot of people have stepped up and played their role. That’s helped us stay in the games lots of times.”

The seniors Nielson referred to were outfielders Reese and Riley McFarland, shortstop Jesamin Aguilar, catcher Gianna Pancost and third baseman Bailey Nichols — all part of three straight championships after not being able to complete their freshman season in 2020 because of the pandemic.

That 2020 season included Arandules as head coach following her replacement of Chris Stainer after Stainer led the Sabercats to the 2019 state championship, the school’s first since 2005.

Arandules, a Class of 2009 Tucson High graduate, left Sabino after the 2020 season to become an assistant coach at Scottsdale Community College, where she stayed through last year.

Sabino won the the 2021 title under former athletic director Kyle Howell and in 2022 and 2023 under Cyndi Cubillas, who decided to resign following last season in order to concentrate more on her role as an administrator at the Southern Arizona Community Academy.

What made Arandules decide to return to Sabino?

“Home,” she said with a smile. “Sabino, the first time I was here was a great experience. I’ve seen the job was going to be back open and I took the opportunity.

“My heart has always been here. I didn’t come to school here but it’s always been a special place in my heart. … The program is still running strong.”

Despite the graduation of some of its top players, Sabino still managed to win at least 20 games this season.

The Sabercats’ seven losses equal the amount of defeats they experienced in the previous three seasons combined (82-7 record).

Last season, the McFarlands, Aguilar, Pancost and Nichols combined for 223 hits (.452 batting average out of 493 at-bats) with 53 doubles, nine triples, 25 home runs and 196 RBIs.

Sabino’s new wave of seniors who are producing are Renee Williams, Sheyanne Duke, Sariah Ferrentino and Xitlali Zuniga with Nielson and sophomore Lilly Mann contributing as standout underclassmen.

Mann leads the Sabercats with 11 home runs and 49 RBIs while Nielson is 10-5 in the circle with a 0.82 ERA.

Nielson, younger sister of former Sabino ace Riley Nielson, pitched five solid innings with a two-run home run in the win over Pusch Ridge on Wednesday.

“We’ve faced a lot of adversity this season with the bigger (classified) teams,” Avery Nielson said of the arduous schedule. “It’s just challenged us in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

“I feel like we were ready for those challenges even though we lost because this whole season we’ve been working.”

Sabino’s seven losses have come against teams in the postseason playing in higher classifications, with the exception of 3A powers Valley Christian (24-2) and Empire (22-7). The Ravens, who lost to Sabino in the 3A state championship last season, defeated the Sabercats 4-0 in their lone meeting this season.

The other defeats were against CDO (29-2) , Mica Mountain (18-7), Walden Grove (13-11), Salpointe (26-3) and 5A school Catalina Foothills (9-13). The Falcons lost in a 5A play-in game at Peoria Centennial on Wednesday.

“Every year, we try to set up our girls to play the tougher teams,” Arandules said. “It just benefits us. I’d rather us lose to hard teams every time, whether it be 5A, 6A … even at 3A, we have those teams, too.

“The girls at the higher level prepare us for the long run. We get to see like the Salpointes, they challenge us. It’s good for our girls to have that experience.”

Alyssa Aguirre, Williams, Mann and Duke each had two hits against Pusch Ridge. Mann produced four RBIs while Aguirre, Williams, Duke and Nielson each forced in two runs.

Sabino pulled away in a 12-run third inning in which the Sabercats sent 16 players to the plate. They took advantage of four errors and two walks.

Aguirre hit an RBI triple and Williams an RBI double in the inning.

Pusch Ridge’s Jaylee Graham hit a two-run double.


ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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