AURORA — This was a moment a long time in the making for Columbine’s softball team.
From two losses in the Class 5A state title game in the mid-1990s, to losing assistant coach Dave Sanders in the tragic mass shooting in 1999, the Rebels had certainly experienced more than their share of heartbreak over the years.
So after junior pitcher Korbe Otis struck out her 13th and final hitter Saturday afternoon at Aurora Sports Park to send Columbine to the program’s first softball championship with a 7-1 victory over Fossil Ridge, the team swarmed Otis as fans rushed on the field to join in the celebration.
Rebels coach Jim Santaniello said the 5A title was a representation of the whole school through the entire history of the program.
“I truly believe Dave Sanders was with us,” he said. “His head coach, Rick Bath, has been a mentor to me. He really taught me the tradition of this sport, and without those guys, this wouldn’t be possible.”
Second-seeded Columbine (28-2) was making its first title-game appearance since 1995. The team topped Valor Christian in the opener Friday, then made a run through three Front Range League squads in Legacy, Rocky Mountain and Fossil Ridge.
Otis tossed a shutout in a 3-0 victory over the Lobos on Saturday morning.
“So much credit to all of the teams we played in this tournament,” Santaniello said. “They’re such great competitors, and their sportsmanship was amazing.
“We just got the timely hits, and our girls were comfortable and confident. I told them we could really do this if they stayed together, and they climbed the whole mountain.”
That they did. Even after SaberCats (23-6) freshman Kodi Alvord opened the championship game with a home run to left field, the Rebels didn’t get rattled. Otis retired the next three batters, the latter two by strikeout, and Emma Todd tied the game at 1-1 in the bottom half of the inning.
Catcher Ally Distler put the Rebels up 2-1 with a home run to lead off the bottom of the second inning, and Riley Marshall followed with a shot to center field.
“We were ready for a fight,” Otis said. “We’ve been winning close ballgames all year long and I think we just had to stay calm. Once they started to bring it, we knew we had to step up.”
A leadoff walk to Maddie McLean and a one-out single by Callie Stern in the third inning brought Distler to the plate again. Once again, the senior rocked a pitch from sophomore Nikki McGaffin over the fence for a three-run home run.
“The second one felt good too, I’m not going to lie,” Distler said with a grin. “Anything I could do to help my team, and that’s just what I was looking for – I was just looking for a pitch to hit, and that’s exactly what I saw.”
Columbine added a final insurance run in the fifth inning. That was more than enough for Otis, who allowed only three hits in seven innings, struck out 13 and didn’t walk a batter.
“She has nerves of steel. She’s the most conditioned athlete I’ve ever coached,” Santaniello said. “She trains like a Division I player and these are the kind of results you see when you do that.”
Otis said the shift in momentum in the first inning was huge for the team.
“I know they weren’t going up to the plate thinking ‘I’m going to hit a home run,’” she said. “They were just trying to do their job one pitch at a time, and do the best they could for their team.”
Marshall finished 2-for-2 with two runs scored and two stolen bases. Distler drove in four runs.
Fossil Ridge, which defeated tournament upstart and No. 16 seed Ralston Valley 13-4 in Saturday morning’s semifinals, will graduate six seniors. The SaberCats were riding a 10-game winning streak coming into the title game after finishing tied for second in the Front Range League.
Columbine graduates only Distler and Stern.
“We’ve just been working constantly to bring it here, to get to this point,” Distler said. “It just feels amazing to make it this far.”