Danielle Kirchhofer 's competitive spirit fuels the Sabercats. (Andy Morales/AZPreps365.com)
Roller coasters take you up, roller coasters take you down. You go for a loop, but you always come back around. There may be no other way to describe the outcome of the 3A semifinal game between No. 11 Sabino and No. 14 Sahuarita played Friday night at Hillenbrand Stadium on the University of Arizona campus.
Sabino (18-8) and Sahuarita (23-11) met for the third time this year with the Mustangs winning in March and the Sabercats drawing even two weeks later en route to a championship in the 3A South Region but none of that matters come playoff time and Sabino won the rubber match Friday night to advance to the semifinal round to be played Saturday morning in Phoenix.
The 7-6 victory by the Sabercats was not as simple as it sounds. A 3-0 lead for Sabino after the first two innings gave way to a 5-4 deficit after four and a 6-4 lead by Sahuarita was erased with two outs in the bottom of the seventh.
Down 6-4, the Sabercats came to life thanks to a leadoff single from freshman Sydney Gray. Gray moved to second base on a misplay on her hit but Gracie Mejia induced a pop fly to put the comeback in doubt.
The freshman pitcher shut the Sabercats down after the third inning and it looked like she was about to recover once again especially after Danielle Kirchhofer followed with a triple to score Gray but she was tagged out at home, trying to extend the play for another run. Had Kirchhofer scored, the game would have been tied but, had she stayed at third, the tying run would have been 60 feet away with only one out. She went for it instead.
Kirchhofer is a competitor and the sophomore has displayed her abilities all year. Listed primarily as a middle-infielder, Kirchhofer took the circle for the Sabercats in the most important game for the program since the semifinal finish of 2012. Her competitive spirit took over and that’s what a program needs.
“The game was full of ups and downs for me,” Kirchhofer said. “Everyone stepped up when we needed to and we picked each other up.”
Still down 6-5, Kirchhofer was hugged and consoled in the dugout by a teammate. It was unclear what was said in that private moment but what came next was magical for one team but season-ending for the other.
Gabby Ramirez doubled and Cassandra Castaneda knocked her in to tie the game up 6-6. Had Kirchhofer stayed at third, perhaps the game would have ended on Castaneda’s hit but one never knows what the pitch selection or the defensive positioning would have been like in alternate situations. As it is, Castaneda restored hope and she moved to second base on the throw but there were still two outs.
Sarah Edwards stepped up to the plate. The senior had seen limited action till this year and she came into the playoffs with only 10 RBI and two home runs but she picked up four RBI and a home run in the Play-In game against Chino Valley and two more RBI and another home run in the first-round upset of Casteel.
But the Sabercats didn’t need a 220-foot shot Friday night, a single would do and Edwards delivered on a short hit to right field that allowed Castaneda to score easily, running on contact with two outs for the 7-6 win.
On the other side, the Mustangs scored two runs in the third on a hit from Breana Hohenstein and three more in the fourth to take the 5-4 lead. Hailey Tanori fueled the outburst in the fourth on a triple that scored two runs and Jessica Lozania brought Tanori in to complete the comeback.
Lozania put the Mustangs up 6-4 in the top of the seventh on a leadoff triple that turned into a run thanks to an obstruction call but that emotional high turned into an emotional low as the events of the bottom of the seventh unfolded.
Tanori finished 3-for-4 on the night, Lozania went 2-3 and Paityn Arrington went 3-3 with a double. Chris Fanning is in his 22nd year with the program and he has 479 wins with two of those coming in the way of a state championship. Not only will the Mustangs chase 500 wins next year, another playoff run is likely.
In the other dugout, first-year coach Chris Stainer is anything but a rookie. Stainer coached 17 years at the college level before moving to Tucson and she has the Sabercats one game away from the program’s fourth championship appearance but the first since the Sabercats won a 4A title in 2005.
No. 2 Yuma Catholic stands in their way but the Sabercats are playing with house money now.
“I’m so excited for my team,” Edwards said. “I knew they had it in them and they achieved it. We get to play again.”