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(Brienne Green – Daily Press)

This was unfamiliar territory for the Lady Bulldog softball team.

Unlike Aztec, who — despite coming up short each time — had appeared in four of the last five Class 5A/4A championship bouts, Artesia had not starred in a title tilt since 2008. They’d not won one since 2001.

The atmosphere at Lobo Softball Field Saturday afternoon was electric, and the Lady ‘Dogs’ opponent was zeroed in on sending longtime ace pitcher Paige Adair off on top. The odds were, to say the least, stacked against the orange and white.

In the end, nerves seemed to get the best of them. The Lady Bulldogs were focused on the task at hand but missing an element of the cool confidence that saw them to a No. 2 seed in the Class 5A State Tournament and their second showdown with top-ranked Aztec. The result was a 7-2 loss to the Lady Tigers, who hoisted their first blue trophy since 2005.

“We were a little off-character,” head coach Sandra Pulido said following the game. “I think we started off a little nervous. I mean, it’s a big stage. With our girls, the first inning they’ll usually have the jitters and then they kind of get over it, but I don’t know what it was — the second inning on, I don’t know if it was the jitters, we just weren’t very disciplined at the plate when we needed to be.

“Paige is a great pitcher, and her ball was moving today. Overall, they’re a great team. We’re a great team, as well, but the softball gods were in their favor today.”

The Lady Bulldogs had proven themselves on par with Aztec in a winners’ bracket semifinal Friday at Cleveland High, ending the Tigers’ scoreless run through the tourney to that point with a tight 3-2 loss that left little question in anyone’s mind which teams would be meeting in Saturday’s championship.

Shortstop Alexa Riggs fires to first for an out in the bottom of the fourth. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Unfortunately adding to the Lady ‘Dogs’ nerves right off the bat, however, was a controversial play in the bottom of the first, one that wound up spotting Aztec two runs and a healthy burst of momentum.

With two away and Adair on first as a hit batsman, Kylie Brown sent a double into the corner in left field. Madisyn Asbury quickly tracked it down, however, and threw a bullet to catcher Melody Payne, who applied the tag for what should have been the third out.

To the shock of Artesia, however, the home-plate umpire somehow didn’t see the play. She deferred to the base umpires, who were obviously in no position to make the call, and rather than err on the side of caution, they ruled Adair’s courtesy runner safe, putting Aztec up 1-0 and extending the inning.

That came to be a factor, as well, as Jocelyn Ulrich singled Brown home in the next at-bat to put the Lady Tigers on top 2-0 going into the second.

The Lady ‘Dogs appeared poised to respond when Adrianna Baeza reached first on a dropped third strike, took second on a sacrifice bunt by Aubree Olguin, and advanced to third on a passed ball, but a pair of Ks ended that threat, and Chanler Groves — aboard with a two-out single — was also left standing in the third.

In the home half, meanwhile, Aztec was able to tack two more to their total on a two-RBI single by Ashlynn Bradley, but the Lady Bulldogs would finally get on the board, 4-1, in the top of four on a leadoff solo shot by pitcher Kali Crandall.

Two more Lady Tigers would cross in the bottom of the inning, however, on a two-RBI swat by Adair, and after Artesia went scoreless in the top of five, Aztec made it 7-1 in their turn on an Autumn Peterson RBI base hit.

Crandall belted another solo homer in the top of the sixth, but time for a comeback had sadly run out on the Lady Bulldogs, who went down in order in the seventh to end the game and the season.

“We just didn’t execute when we needed to,” said Pulido. “We left some baserunners on in timely situations, and they were able to capitalize on some missed spots. But we had a great season. The losses we had were to good teams, big 6A schools, and I’m very proud of the girls and the way they played this season.

“We fought hard together, and that was the biggest thing that we were happy to see. They came out and worked together. They did everything together as a team; it wasn’t always the same nine on the field, and that just goes to show how talented we are as a team.”

Kali Crandall delivers to the plate during the bottom of the second inning of Saturday’s Class 5A state championship at Lobo Softball Field in Albuquerque. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Crandall took the loss in the circle on the day with nine hits, six earned runs, three strikeouts, and two walks. On in relief in the bottom of the sixth, Kacey Thurman gave up one hit and one walk. Crandall led the squad at the plate on the day, 2-3 with two homers, and Groves and Gabrielle Gomez were both 1-3.

It was telling that the second sentenced uttered by Pulido after the game was, “We just have to refocus and get ready for next year.” Artesia loses just a pair of seniors — Olguin and Asbury — to graduation this month. Aztec will say goodbye to Adair and four others.

“We’ll have seven seniors next year, and they all got a lot of playing time,” said Pulido. “So they’re seasoned, and I’m looking to be back here next year. Hopefully, we’ll face Aztec again and the outcome will be different.”

Significantly amongst those returners will be the Lady Bulldogs’ pitching tandem of Crandall and Thurman. The pair say the state game experience will stay with Artesia and only add to their desire to be back there again in 2018, hungry and veteran.

“We had a great team this year, and we tried hard,” said Crandall. “No matter the outcome, I knew I was going to be happy with our effort because we never let down. We always fought, and we played for God, and God gave us a blessing — that’s the reason we came here.”

“I’m excited for next year,” said Thurman, “because we did a really good job, and I’m glad we made it this far. We played as a team every game. We fought through every battle, and I’m just very proud of us.”

“We’re going to be bringing back a real strong team,” Crandall noted. “Our pitching is still going to be strong and our infield is going to be strong, and a lot of other teams are losing some players, so I feel really good about next year.

“Our team played together, we had good chemistry, and nobody got onto each other — no attitudes. We loved each other as a family, and we’d do anything for each other.”

Pulido says the team will miss the leadership of its two upperclassmen, but she also saw the future in the eyes of the girls intent on making their way back to state next year. And it looked bright.

“I’m sad to see both Aubree and Mada go,” said the coach. “They’ve been great kids, not just athletes but people in general. They’re two that come out and work hard, and the girls look up to them. Granted, we’ll have seven seniors next year, but they have some big shoes to fill. These two are ones that kind of led by example, and the girls followed.

“I’ve been blessed to be able to coach those two for the last two years, and I’m sad to see them go. But I’m very excited for what the future holds.”