AURORA — The message was clear. If Wheat Ridge was going to take the Class 4A state softball championship from Valor Christian, they were going to have to pry it out of the Eagles' hands.
The Farmers came up short on offense and a sixth inning home run by Abby Zuschlag gave Valor a 2-1 win, and they second-straight softball championship.
"When the bracket came out, we knew we would have to go through Frederick, Erie and Wheat Ridge and sure enough, we did," Eagles coach Dave Atencio said. "Thank the lord we got through all three of them. They were the best three teams we played all year. Our hitting came through once again."
It was almost eerie in the way the Eagles won in the semis and then similarly brought home the state championship. Locked in a 0-0 tie late against the Erie Tigers, Lauren Foster launched a home run — Valor's only hit of the game — to give them a 1-0 lead.
In the finals, the Farmers and Eagles were locked in a stalemate until Zuschlag got ahold of a pitch, sending it over the left field fence.
"It was such an incredible feeling," Zuschlag said. "I was planning on bunting because I thought Vannah (Behabetz) was going to get on, and doing what I needed to for the team. The minute that hit my bat, it was an unbelievable feeling."
But the feeling of holding the state championship trophy in her hand was better.
The Eagles had to battle through Erie and Frederick last year to come away as champions. Coming into this season, the Eagles thought that some observers were down on them and questioned their ability to successfully repeat.
"We were able to prove ourselves," Zuschlag said. "We worked so hard all season and we were able to just come to this tournament and prove that we could do it again. We're the same team and we're just as good, if not better.
Alexandria Kilponen came up big for Valor on the mound. She allowed a home run to Anna Marie Torres, the first batter she saw, but then settled down.
She struck out seven Farmer hitters and only allowed one base runner to reach third base. That came in the third inning when the Farmers had their best chance to put runs on the board, loading the bases with only one out.
"(Kilponen) did a good job pitching against us," Farmers coach Marty Stricklett said. "We just have to come out with base hits after loading the bases with one out. To (come away empty) ... that's going to haunt me for a year."
As tight as the semifinal and championship games were for the Eagles, they knew that Kilponen didn't need that much run support for them to get their hands on the hardware.
Only a sophomore, she gives the Eagles a great look to take more championships in the years to come.
"With a pitcher like Kilponen, we know if we get one or two runs, we're tough to beat," Atencio said. "She's only a sophomore, but she comes through in the clutch. Once we got that lead, it was ours."
Desperately needing a runner to reach for Torres to get one more at-bat, Julia Shippley hit a dribbler down the first base line. Skylar Vaughn initially mishandled the ball but recovered and hustled to the bag to end the game and etch the legacy of the 2015 Valor Christian Eagles in stone.