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(Brienne Green – Daily Press)

With two away in the top of the seventh and the tying run on third, the Lady ‘Dog Invitational championship game was going much the way most at the Mack Chase Athletic Complex Saturday afternoon had expected: down to the wire.

In a bout between two of the top squads in Class 5A and a sneak preview of District 4-AAAAA play to boot, Artesia and Roswell High had battled their way through a six-inning rollercoaster ride to that point.

Clutch hitting by the Lady Bulldogs in the bottom of the sixth to pull ahead 5-3 had marked the third lead change of the ballgame, and the Lady Coyotes were looking to establish its second tie in the seventh. A leadoff single by Aaliyah Hunter had gotten the ball rolling, and Mikenzey Patterson, who’d posted a RBI double to make it 5-4, was dancing between third and home on every pitch, waiting for an opening.

Artesia pitcher Kacey Thurman, meanwhile, was looking for closure. And she got it with the game on the line, ringing up out No. 3 to give the Lady ‘Dogs the win.

“I’m very proud of the way the girls played,” head coach Sandra Pulido said Saturday following her team’s 3-0 weekend. “They fought back when they fell behind in the beginning and just continued to score runs.

“We didn’t let the base hits and stuff like that hurt us. We fought back, and it was great to see.”

Following two scoreless innings, the Lady Bulldogs tumbled into an early hole in the top of the third when consecutive singles by Roswell High’s Sheyanne Sandoval, Adrianna Horton and Mykaela Olivas resulted in the game’s first run.

Artesia was able to answer in the home half of the fourth, however, putting together the breakout at-bat they’d been needing amidst a two-out rally.

With Alexa Riggs on first following a leadoff single, Gabrielle Gomez swatted a base hit to open turf in right-center field. The relay throws were delayed enough to see the speedy Riggs home, and Gomez took second on the attempt to the plate.

That set the table for catcher Melody Payne, who singled in Gomez, and the Lady ‘Dogs continued to hit it where the Coyotes weren’t on a single to right by Adrianna Baeza. A double over the head of the center fielder by Aubree Olguin plated Payne and put Artesia up 3-1 going into the fifth.

They were able to hold that advantage until the sixth, when leadoff singles by Horton and Olivas became the tying runs on a double to left by pitcher Mykaya Olivas.

The tie had the Lady Coyotes and their fans riled up and in danger of monopolizing the momentum. But solid two-out hitting once again came to the rescue of the Lady Bulldogs, as Olguin sent a home run over the fence in center in the bottom of the inning to make it 5-3 and set up the exciting conclusion.

That kind of focus and determination in the face of adversity is something Pulido says is a major asset for this year’s Lady ‘Dog squad.

“It’s a big change from last year,” said the coach. “Just the mental side of everything that goes into the game, being tougher than what’s happening and not letting it beat you – that alone is going to take us far.

“Our girls are having fun this year. They’re playing relaxed and having fun, and that’s what the game of softball is about. It definitely helps get the job done. And it’s always fun when you’re winning.”

Following the final strike, the Lady Bulldogs piled around a smiling Thurman, who went the distance in the circle on the afternoon. The junior hurler struck out four and walked two amidst eight hits and four earned runs, while her counterpart, Olivas, had seven hits, five earned runs, six Ks, and one walk to her credit.

Olguin led Artesia at the plate, going 2-3 with a double, a homer, and three RBI, while Riggs was 2-3 with a double and Gomez 1-2 with one run batted in.

The Lady Bulldogs made their morning outing an abbreviated one Saturday at The Mack, run-ruling Cobre 11-1 in six innings of a winners’ bracket semifinal.

The Lady Indians got an early lead over Artesia, as well, in that contest, scoring in the top of the first on a RBI double by pitcher Jadin Placencio.

But the Lady ‘Dogs answered in the second on an error, then took the lead in the third on a RBI fielder’s choice by Chanler Groves that scored Thurman – on with a leadoff double – and a two-run homer to left by pitcher Kali Crandall.

Two more Lady Bulldogs would cross the plate in the fifth on back-to-back triples by Riggs and Groves, and a Gomez RBI FC, and Artesia broke the game open in the home half of the sixth.

There, a throwing error made it 7-1 with one away and a walk, an error, and a fielder’s choice loaded the bases for Crandall, who belted a walk-off grand slam to send Artesia to the championship.

“We got to see a different look in the Cobre game with our lineup, and it was good for us,” Pulido said. “Like I said the other day, we have a strong 13-player roster. So yes, it was different, but we had full confidence in the lineup that we put out there.

“It doesn’t matter who we have on the field or in the box, we can and will be successful with all 13 girls.”

Crandall finished with three hits, one earned run, nine strikeouts, and no walks through six complete innings and also led the team at the plate, going 2-3 with two homers and six RBI.

The Lady ‘Dogs got a bit of a challenge from an Alamogordo team they’d blanked 8-0 March 14 on the road in their tournament opener Friday but would come out on top to start the weekend on a positive note.

Artesia got on the board in the first on a passed ball and a Gomez sac-fly to right, then made it 3-0 in the third on a Gomez fielder’s choice that scored Elisa Cardenas, aboard with a double.

The Lady Tigers would rally in the top of the sixth, however, to tie the game at 3-all on consecutive doubles by Rosemary Tave and Bianca Granados.

But just as they did against Roswell High, the Lady Bulldogs maintained their composure and reclaimed the lead in the home half, scoring three on a throwing error and a two-RBI base knock by Cardenas.

Thurman logged her first win of the weekend in that outing, giving up seven hits and three earned runs while striking out seven and walking two. Cardenas was 3-4 in the box with a double and two RBI.

“I think we played well this weekend,” Pulido said. “We had a couple of mistakes here and there, but we fought back and were able to show that hey, this is our tournament and we’re going to make it to the championship.

“We hit the ball well, we played some good defense, our pitching was good, and when you have all three of those in the fight, you really can’t ask for anything more than that. We had some great competition in the tournament this year. There were a lot of good teams, and we’re very thankful all seven teams were able to get out here safely and play some good softball.”

The Artesia girls (9-3) will now prepare to head to Carlsbad Tuesday for a 6:30 p.m. rematch with the Class 6A Cavegirls – whom the Lady ‘Dogs defeated 6-1 March 21 at home – before taking a week off to prepare for their District 4 opener April 11 at The Mack against none other than Roswell.

Between now and then, Pulido and her staff hope to see the team continue to improve and implement what they’ve learned to this point.

“We just need to continue to simplify things,” Pulido said. “Sometimes we get into our heads a little bit more than we should, so we just need to get back to the basics again.

“Yes, we won the tournament, that’s great, and we’re happy, but we have a lot more season to go, and we’re only going to get better by doing the little things right – getting our bunts down, working on moving runners over, hitting the outside pitch, making those plays on defense, seeing our spots in the circle… just basic, fundamental softball.”