AURORA — There was a brief moment when Fossil Ridge was trailing Cherokee Trail after the first inning that coach Dave Philop couldn't help but think that he was reliving a nightmare.
Each year it seems like the Sabercats are a favorite claim the Class 5A softball state title and they've often come away empty-handed or with the second-place trophy. This time, a fourth inning rally ripped him out of the nightmare and into his dream ending for his team.
A 5-1 win over Cherokee Trail finally put gold in the hands of a Fossil Ridge program that has felt so much disappointment in recent years.
"This group is kind of a younger group than what we've had," Philop said. "They've just keep playing and we've worked with them on that. We play seven innings and 21 outs."
That certainly helps keep a team patient in a situation where pressure can feel like it's mounting.
The Sabercats (18-3 overall) fell into an early hole when Ryleigh Cruz started the game off with a double and scored on a Brooke Scott base hit. For the next few innings, Jenna Medhus looked unhittable, even three hitters in the bottom of the second.
That's where the 21 outs mentality came in handy. Nikki McGaffin reached base on an error in the bottom of the fourth. Zaelyn Harding came in as the courtesy runner and scored on a Bella Forbes single to tie the game.
Lizzy Browning's 2-RBI single broke the game open and gave Fossil Ridge a 4-1 lead and move the team closer to its first softball title.
"I knew we could do it," Browning said. "I was feeling a little pressured, but I believed in my team."
Once the lead was in hand, it was McGaffin's turn to look dominant. She allowed just one base runner over the final three innings, ending any hope of a Cherokee Trail (17-4) comeback. She ended her day giving up just six hits and the one unearned run.
She only struck out two hitters and had complete belief in the defense that was standing behind her.
Kodi Alvord added to the Fossil Ridge lead with a solo home run in the bottom of the sixth, but even as the Sabercats went into the top of the 7th with a four-run lead, McGaffin couldn't help but wish it was just a tad more.
"In the regular season four feels pretty good," she said. "Last year we were up seven and that still didn't feel good. No lead is big enough in a state championship."
At least until that final out is made.
This was the fourth title game appearance for Fossil Ridge and the second in a row. The appreciation this team has for its newly won state title comes mostly in part to having fallen short on more than one occasion.
"It feels amazing," Alvord said. "We put all of our hearts into the game and we did it for our coach because he's come here every year for a long time and never got it. We played our hearts out and did what we did."