About 30 minutes before the Carlsbad Cavegirls took the field for warmups ahead of Saturday’s Class 5A state softball championship game at UNM Field, the Sharpie came out.
And about 15 minutes before they started warming up, so did the tears.
“Yeah, those brats made me cry,” admitted Carlsbad coach Brian Santo.
Every player wrote 4-Brian on the side of their visor before the biggest softball game of their young lives in honor of the first-year coach, who spend 70 days hospitalized last fall with COVID, 36 of them while intubated, before being released Dec. 31.
After his Cavegirls rallied from an early deficit on Saturday before breaking things open in the fifth inning en route to a 13-6 win over Centennial for the program’s 17th state championship, it was hard to know if the moisture on Santo’s cheeks was more from tears or from the bucket of ice water his team poured on him.
“We’ve had so many games this year where we just break it out in one inning or two,” Santo said. “I mean it’s been that way all season. These girls, they’re scrappers.”
No. 2 Centennial (25-8) took a 4-2 lead in the first two innings, including a three-run bomb in the first inning off the bat of freshman Amanda Valles.
Top-seeded Carlsbad (30-1) broke a 5-5 tie in the fifth with a go-ahead RBI single from Aislenn Whitzel and later in the inning a three-run double from junior Faith Aragon, capping a five-run inning. Haiven Schoolcraft’s three-run bomb in the sixth brought the lead to 13-5.
But for the junior pitcher, the season was a success long before Saturday’s return to championship form for the Cavegirls, who hadn’t won a title in 12 years.
“We didn’t even expect him back for this season,” Schoolcraft said. “But then he came out to practice, in a wheelchair at first and he couldn’t walk. … But we watched him work so hard every single day to get back for us. So we all did this for Brian.”
The eye-black highlighted with orange glitter on the cheeks of Seniah Haines was smudged.
It was hard to say if it was from the countless hugs she was receiving or the tears of joy she was sharing with teammates.
Either way, it was pretty much the only blemish of the day you could find on the Gallup sophomore ace, who led the No. 2 Bengals to a one-sided 8-0 win over No. 4 Lovington on Saturday afternoon at the UNM Softball Field.
Haines allowed just three hits and struck out six, facing just 24 batters over seven innings to deliver for the Bengals (24-7) the first softball championship in school history. Before 2021’s runner-up finish, they had never even made a title game.
“It seemed like we were just happy to be there last year,” said coach Crystal Pablo. “So this year was different because we had that experience and we knew what to expect. We just didn’t hold back. We just kept going.”
The Bengals jumped out to a four-run first- inning lead on the fourth-seeded Wildcats (23-9). Part of the early push was a double from senior center fielder Taylor Morgan, who had a double in the inning and homered in the second.
But as good as the offense was for the Bengals, on Saturday, one run would have been enough.
“It’s my defense, just my teammates,” Haines said when asked how she could be so confident pitching for her school’s first-ever championship. “We trust each other. Everything we do is for each other and for the little girls in Gallup who look up to us.”