AURORA — As a No. 14 seed heading into the state tournament semifinals Saturday morning at Aurora Sports Park, Erie wasn't exactly a favorite to win the Class 4A softball state tournament.
But after wins over No. 2 seed Holy Family in the semis and No. 1 Golden in the championship, the Tigers held up their 12th championship trophy in program history, the most of any team in the state.
"I would like to say we planned it that way," Erie first-year coach Vanessa Smith said with a chuckle after defeating Golden 13-9 in eight innings. "We started pretty strong. Then we hit a lull this season when these girls had to react and respond. I knew they (Holy Family) couldn't beat us three times and that's what I told them: We are too good."
Taking down their conference foe in the semifinals, the HF squad had the number of Erie heading into their third matchup this season. And, after, bypassing last year's champion with 12 hits in the 9-5 victory, Golden (28-2) was the only thing standing in the way of a team hotter than anyone in the state.
The Demons jumped out to the early 1-0 lead on senior Kenzie Middleton's 17th bomb of the season. But, as Erie did all day, they came back.
Erie scored five times in the top of the second, including a two-run homer from senior Kaylee Armstrong, and jump-started an offense that recorded six hits in the frame. The other three runs in the inning came from singles by seniors Jen Williams, Lauren Russell and Madysun Vaughn.
This, however, was just the start of the madness.
Trailing 6-3 in the bottom of the fourth, Golden got a three-run opposite-field home run by senior Kayla Middleton to tie the game at 6-6, and sent it on a path the led to a spirited and competitive ending.
Erie took a 7-6 lead in the top of the fifth, then surrendered the lead in the bottom half on error and RBI double from Golden's Kayla Middleton. The throwing error came from Vaughn, a consistent presence for the Tigers all year, but she wouldn't let this play define her.
Vaughn, a veteran leader, responded in the top of the sixth with a two-run home run, giving her team the lead right back at 9-8.
"She's such a competitor, and I'm so proud of her," Smith said of Vaughn. "She's one of those leaders that lead this team no matter what the score is."
Golden refused to give in. The Demons pushed across a game-tying run in the bottom of the seventh, and sent the game to extra innings — where it seemingly was destined to be from the start.
And it didn't take long for Erie to say "enough." Vaughn came up clutch again with another go-ahead moon-shot to put Erie up 11-9.
"It was amazing. Every single person on the team had a role to play in that game, and I knew they had my back whenever I messed up," Vaughn said. "But, I knew I was going to be okay, and I had their back, too."
Armstrong followed that with a two-run home run of her own, her second of the game, to space the lead out to a comfortable margin for senior pitcher Alyssa Barnett and senior catcher Kat Sackett to close the affair.
"We've had ups and downs throughout the entire season, but we stayed together at the end of it, and every single person out there deserves this spot," Vaughn said. "We worked so hard, and in my opinion, we didn't necessarily deserve the 14th seed, but you know it was because of those low games we had. It just proves that any team can come out and get it. Such a great feeling to go out like this."
As both teams graduate a combined 14 seniors, Sackett showcased her worth in both games behind the plate Saturday and all season for Erie — controlling the running game and proving as a wall for senior starter Megan Loveland and Barnett in relief.
"She's a dream player. All-around, dream player. Not just her physical abilities but her ability to lead, run the game, stop the momentum, and keep things in control at our pace and our level all the time," Smith said. "You can't teach half of what she has."
Smith took over Erie's softball program a week and a half before the season began and said of most of the season that "we've been holding on tight."
But now, the Tigers can relax. As champions.