AURORA — Facing the two-time defending state champions, the La Junta softball team had an uphill battle, trailing Strasburg 2-1 in Saturday’s Class 3A state championship game.
Rather than succumbing to the pressure, the Tigers embraced it.
La Junta pushed two runs across in the top of the seventh inning to overtake Strasburg 3-2 and earn the school’s first state title since 1999.
Both teams won compelling semifinals to advance to the title game.
Strasburg took a 4-0 lead on Sterling, then held off the Tigers to win 4-3 as Sterling had runners on first and second with no outs in the seventh and couldn’t get a runner across.
It was the Indians’ third one-run victory over Sterling this season.
In the other semifinal, La Junta scored a run in the fourth and made it hold up – despite Valley loading the bases with two outs in the bottom of the seventh.
The Tigers actually took the early lead in the title game, going up 1-0 on an RBI single by Sierra Russell.
But Strasburg entered the game with a 51-game winning streak, a number of those wins coming by one run.
The Indians tied the game in the fourth, then took a 2-1 lead an inning later on a steal of third and an overthrow with nobody covering the bag.
Still, La Junta pitcher Whitni Oquist was doing an effective job on the mound against a good-hitting Indians squad.
“She keeps them off balance,” Tigers coach Justin Weber said of his senior right-hander.
“We just worked inside-out,” Oquist said. “My team played great defense behind me.”
Still behind by one entering their last at-bat, Oquist coaxed a one-out walk.
“Yep, (I was thinking), just get on base,” she said as Strasburg pitcher Dakota Stotyn never gave her anything to hit.
That set the table for Sarah Zamora.
“I was thinking, just hit the ball,” Zamora said.
She drilled a shot into right field, scoring Oquist from first.
“Right when (the pitch) came, it was the perfect pitch for me,” she said as she took the outside pitch to the opposite field.
As for Oquist, she knew what she had to do.
“Even if (Weber) was telling me to stop, I was going home,” she said.
With Zamora on third, that brought up Kurstian Whatley, who was hitless in the game to that point.
“It grew my momentum,” she said. “The fact that it’s my senior year, I thought, this is my chance. I just went up there and cleared my head.”
She promptly lined a double to left, driving in the go-ahead run.
“We had what we wanted up,” Weber said of having the heart of his order coming to the plate in the seventh.
As for producing in the clutch, “It’s what they’ve done all year,” Weber said.
For Zamora, in may not have sunk in yet what they’d achieved, but she was going to relish the moment.
“It feels pretty darned great,” she said of bringing a championship trophy back to La Junta.
Oquist just wanted to end her prep career on an upbeat note.
“My biggest thing was to come out and have fun,” she said.
Besides Oquist and whatley, the Tigers graduate only center fielder Brooklyn Waddles.
“Hopefully they can build on this,” Weber said of his returning squad.
In the meantime, they’re going to relish the moment.
“We’ll enjoy this,” he said as his team celebrated behind him.