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(Brienne Green – Daily Press)

It was as if someone awoke a sleeping giant.

What happened Friday morning at the Class 5A State Softball Tournament caught everyone off guard — most of all, the Lady Bulldogs. A team that had built a reputation as a literal offensive juggernaut over the course of the 2018 season managed just three hits against Farmington, and the result was a 4-2 loss and a tumble into the dreaded losers’ bracket.

What lay ahead was beyond arduous: In the punishing New Mexico heat and gusting winds, at a softball complex that provides little respite from either, the Lady ‘Dogs were essentially required to spend the remainder of Friday suffering their way back into contention for the blue trophy they knew was rightfully theirs.

Game by game, inning by inning, they did precisely that.

Down went Alamogordo, 13-4. Same with Los Lunas, 15-9. Next on the elimination block was Aztec — the squad that bested Artesia for the state title in 2017 — who fell 13-1 in five innings. By the time all was said and done, the girls in orange were exhausted, but they’d done the job. They were back in the title tilt.

Double-elimination tournaments hold one more glitch for battle-weary losers’ bracket survivors, however: The team that took the easy route must be beaten twice.

And so the challenge was issued Saturday at the University of New Mexico softball field. And it was answered. Loudly and with several exclamation points on the end.

The Lady Bulldogs proceeded to dismantle Farmington over the course of the two-game series Saturday, taking the first outing 13-2 in six innings and slamming the door in Game Two, 13-0 in five. With that, Artesia earned its first state championship since 2001.

“Like Coach Crandall said Friday, after that first loss to Farmington, we were just another team in the tournament,” head coach Sandra Pulido said following Artesia’s championship run. “At that point, we were no longer the No. 1 seed, and it was up to us to prove why we had been No. 1 all season long.

“And they did that. They fought for each other.”

(Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The Lady ‘Dogs made their emphatic statement before a raucous crowd of supporters, dominating the Lady Scorpions over the course of the two games. Artesia posted 29 total hits and 19 RBI. They delivered a pair of home runs in each contest and committed just two minor errors.

In the circle for essentially all of it — save a brief exit and re-entry in the bottom of the sixth in Game One — was senior pitcher Kali Crandall, who held Farmington to just three hits on the day, two in the first bout and one in the second. She struck out 15 batters, walked just one, and surrendered no earned runs.

Considering the temperatures and the pressure of the situation, it was an incredible feat, one Crandall said was accomplished with the help of her team.

“My team really pushed me but they also babied me in the dugout,” she said. “They were all saying, ‘Sit down, here’s water, don’t get up, save your energy,’” she said to laughter from her teammates. “I knew if they hit a ball in the outfield, our outfield was going to catch it. If they hit it in the infield, our infielders were going to lay out trying.

“I had a lot of trust, so I knew I just had to try my best and they would, too.”

With the exception of a leadoff single in the bottom of the first in Game One, Crandall and her defense seated the Lady Scorpions in order through the sixth. Eighth-grade sister Rylee Crandall came on in relief for that inning but exited after a walk and a hit, and the elder pitcher came on to preserve the run-rule win, 13-2.

It took Artesia two innings to sync up their offense, but when they did, there was no stopping them.

Lady Bulldog senior catcher Melody Payne belts a three-run homer over the center-field fence during Thursday’s first-round state game against Belen. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The Lady ‘Dogs logged the game’s first four runs in the third on RBI doubles by Melody Payne and Gabrielle Gomez, and a two-RBI single by Stacia Martinez, then racked up four more in the fourth on a Crandall solo home run, an error, and a two-run bomb by Gomez.

The girls in orange then put the run rule on the table in the sixth with five runs that included a RBI single by Presley Skinner.

Leadoff batter Alexa Riggs was 2-3 on the game with a pair of walks, while Payne, Martinez and Gomez all went 2-4 with six RBI between them.

“We had to focus a little more and just get a little more of our confidence back,” senior Kacey Thurman said of her team’s rebound from the hitting performance that wasn’t Friday morning to the barrage Saturday became.

Game Two got off to a bit of a shaky start, as the Lady ‘Dogs went down in order in the top of the first, then had to stave off a two-on, no-out situation in the home half. But they emerged unscathed, while Farmington could not say the same in the top of the second.

Artesia proceeded to bat around over the course of the seven-run onslaught that included a three-run homer by Gomez, a Skinner sac-fly, and a RBI double and triple respectively by Crandall and Adrianna Baeza.

The momentum firmly in their corner after forcing Farmington ace Makayla Donald out of the game for the second time that day, the Lady ‘Dogs tacked on two runs in the fourth on a Crandall homer to right and four in the fifth with help from a Baeza RBI triple and Payne RBI double.

The Lady Scorps had gone down in order in their third and fourth trips to the plate, and Artesia kept that streak going in the fifth to close out the win, the season, and their title-winning run.

“It feels unbelievable… it’s amazing,” said Payne. “There aren’t words to describe it.”

“God has truly blessed our team, and we worked together as a family,” said Crandall. “I wouldn’t want anyone else behind me.”

“It’s exciting, and I’m just so proud of all of them and glad we could do it together,” said Rylee Crandall.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for since freshman year,” said Thurman. “I have the most amazing team ever, and it feels great.”

Baeza went 3-4 on the contest with two triples and two RBI, Payne, Gomez and Chanler Groves were all 2-3, and Crandall and Martinez were 2-4.

“I’m so proud of these girls,” said Pulido. “That game yesterday morning was a tough loss. We weren’t expecting it for sure, but they fought back, and that’s what these girls have done all year.

“We got a lot of hitting in after that loss, which was definitely good to see after not hitting in that game. The bats just continued to stay alive today.”

“A lot of hitting” still doesn’t begin to describe the offensive torrent Artesia unleashed upon their opponents following their initial loss.

The Lady Bulldogs posted 75 hits over the course of their five post-defeat games. Ten of those hits were home runs, five off the bat of the sophomore Gomez.

Gabrielle Gomez celebrates with Kali Crandall (17) after hitting her second home run of the day Saturday at the UNM softball field. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

“It feels pretty good,” Gomez laughed. “It’s just a bunch of reps and muscle memory — I don’t try, it just happens.”

That the comeback was so very decisive says much about the team’s state of mind.

“We stayed mentally tough because we had each other to lean on,” said Crandall. “We never let each other get tired, never let each other slack off. We always knew this was where we were supposed to be.

“We had one bad game, but we overcame adversity. We were just being selfish as seniors because we wanted more games with our family.”

The Lady Bulldogs close the book on their 2018 season with a record of 29-4 and a campaign’s worth of memorable moments that all led up to the ultimate prize.

“It was a great season,” said Pulido. “We’re tough on the girls, and we expect a lot of them, but that’s because we know they’re capable of doing it. They put in a lot of hard work and dedication this season, hours people don’t see — the extra hitting in the cages, the extra ground balls after practice.

“It’s paid off for them for sure.”

The championship was particularly poignant for the team’s seniors, a group of seven whose loss to graduation will be significant: Crandall, Thurman, Martinez, Riggs, Baeza, Gracie Puentes and Elisa Cardenas.

“I’m going to miss those girls,” Pulido said. “I’m very proud of them and what they’ve done the last three years.”

“All our work finally paid off, and it’s amazing,” said Thurman.

“It feels good to end our last season on a win,” said Crandall. “We just came out here and played our hearts out for God, and it was awesome.”

Artesia has a solid group of experienced underclassmen returning in 2019, however, and they’ll unquestionably be ready to defend their title.

“I feel like we’re still going to be strong,” said Gomez. “We’re still going to have pitching, and it’ll be a big loss with all these seniors leaving, but I feel like we’re capable of winning it again next year.”

“I think they’re ready,” said Pulido. “We do have a lot of big shoes to fill, but this group that we have, the experience that we gained with having eight underclassmen this year, is going to be great. They’re high expectations for sure, but they can handle it.”