AURORA — Rio Sanchez blacked out in the batter's box against Ali Kilponen; instinct had taken over, and she was swinging at anything. She didn't know how she was making contact, but she did know she wasn't giving up.
It was a pitcher's duel from the beginning of the Class 4A softball state championship games between the two best pitchers in the state, regardless of classification. But no moment better exemplified the intensity of the situation than when No. 1-seeded Erie's senior ace, Sanchez, went up against her club teammate, Kilponen, and fired off at least eight foul balls in a row during a single at-bat in the bottom of the fifth inning.
Kilponen struck Sanchez out — her 12th of 13 strikeouts — and helped the No. -3 seeded Eagles beat the Tigers 3-1 on Saturday afternoon at Aurora Sports Park to claim their third straight softball state championship.
The junior, a two-time 4A player of the year, threw straight fire in the final against one of the state's best hitting squads, striking out seven of the first nine Erie batters and continuing dominance from the mound until the very last out of the game.
"My gut dropped; it's insane we just three-peated," Kilponen said. "We had doubters and just had to prove them wrong. I knew we had to bring everything to the plate against Rio and I had to do everything I could defensively."
Valor finished its third title-winning season 24-1 under fourth year head coach Dave Atencio.
"This is by far the toughest one," Atencio said. "Everyone was coming at us pretty hard and we persevered. This senior class is my first class all the way through, so it's pretty special."
Valor took an early 1-0 lead in the game after sophomore Savannah Behabetz, the leadoff batter, scored from an RBI single from senior catcher Erica Mann. But senior Madalyn Mitchell scored the lone dinger of the game, hitting a solo shot to center field in the top of the fourth inning to bring the Eagles up 2-1.
Sanchez got the offense going for Erie after she doubled off Kilponen in the bottom of the fourth inning. Hannah Hackney brought in Sanchez's pinch runner, Teagan Brand, off an RBI single on the next at-bat to cut the Eagles' lead to 2-1.
Erie junior Maddie Foster appeared to have hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning, which would have given the Tigers the lead, but it was ruled a foul ball.
Valor answered back in the fifth inning when Behabetz scored a run on a passed ball. All Kilponen had to do was hold the Tigers' offense so Valor could hoist the trophy yet again.
"These are high-end pitchers, programs and teams," Erie coach Harold Simmons said. "It was exciting to meet each other in the state championship as opposed to the last two years we've met in the Final Four."
He added: "It was nice to see two of the highest end pitchers, I think, that have maybe ever pitched in Colorado go after it."
This was Erie's only loss of the season, finishing 24-1, and the Tigers' first trip to the state final since a state runner-up year in 2013. Erie, only losing three seniors from this team, is a powerhouse softball program with 11 state titles - the most in Colorado. The program's last championship came in 2010.
Sanchez, who will play collegiate softball at Central Arkansas University, knows the Valor squad well: Atencio is one of her club coaches on the Colorado Styxx Gold 18U team, and she is good friends with Valor senior shortstop Lauren Foster, who is playing college ball at the University of Wisconsin.
"It's interesting; an advantage, but disadvantage at times playing against people you know," Sanchez said. "You know them and their habits, but you also know how good they are, and if you overthink it, you might not do too well."
Kilponen and Sanchez ended the softball year as the state's top leaders in strikeouts with 283 and 232, respectively, and no-hitters, both with five.