The 2018 softball season for Delta High School's Panthers will be one not soon to be forgotten. After years of earning respect from around the state, Delta notched several memorable firsts for a program which battled its way to the top of the 3A WSL standings the past few seasons.
Getting past the first round of playoffs hasn't always been an easy task for Delta coach Jerry Sandoval and his team.
"It's not easy getting to the top without hard work and sacrifice," noted Sandoval prior to last week's state softball tournament in Denver. "These girls have worked their cans off to get where they were this year."
Delta was a solid performer in the 3A WSL, again in 2018, winning another league title with an 11-0 record and entering this year's state tournament with a 3A best record 20-2 coming into tournament play. The Panthers were first in RPI rankings entering their final week of regulation play but slipped to second when Eaton crawled on top by 1-1000th of a point to take over first place.
Eventually, Strasburg would become the top seed with Eaton second and Delta third to begin tournament play.
One of the major accomplishments for Delta was its first-ever chance to host a regional playoff. Delta won that regional and went on to win its first two games of this year's state tournament before falling to No. 2 Eaton in last Saturday's semi-final round in Aurora, 15-0. The loss ended a storybook season for nine dedicated senior athletes. Delta finished the year with a program-best 22-3 record.
Delta began its title chase Oct. 19 against No. 14 Sterling and was on the verge of coming home early when the Panthers trailed Sterling 9-7 in the bottom of the seventh inning. A two-run inning for Delta tied the game at 9-9 sending the game to extra innings.
Neither team could mount a scoring effort until the bottom of the ninth. With one out Reagan Clay reached base on an error with Amanda Cotten batting for Makayla Kortz up next. Cotten doubled to drive Clay to third. Desiree Garcia drew a walk to load the bases and Sami Lane was also walked with Clay coming home with the winning run.
Senior Jenna Sutliff provided major support with a home run and three RBIs in the game. Also picking up RBIs for the Panthers were Alyssa Trujillo, Keely Porter, Clay, and Lane.
Hailee Ruble picked up her 15th win against one loss after working nine innings and striking out 11 Tiger batters.
Friday's second game against Meeker was the third time the two teams had faced each other this season. Delta had swept the Cowboys 12-5 and 9-2 on Sept. 22 in Meeker. Friday's encounter was another nail-biter for both teams, and their fans.
Meeker, the No. 11 seed in the tournament, reached the quarterfinal round against Delta after dumping No. 6 seed Lamar 10-8 earlier in the day.
Delta eased its way to a 4-0 lead against the Cowboys when disaster struck. All-conference player Jenna Sutliff twisted her left knee on a play at second base and had to be taken out of the game. Sutliff would later learn her season was over and would miss the Eaton game as well.
A couple of batters later, on a passed ball, Ruble was covering the plate on a throw from Delta catcher Keely Porter when she was injured by a sliding Meeker player. Ruble was able to get up but was not the same after that.
Delta found itself down, again, in the bottom of the seventh inning, 9-7, with Lane at the plate with two runners on, two outs and two strikes. The Panthers pulled another rabbit out of the hat on Lane's walkoff three-run home run to win the game, 10-9. Clay was one of the runners on base after hitting a single and Garcia reached base on an error.
Ruble was, again, in the circle for her 16th win of the season for Delta.
It is unfortunate injuries may have played a role in the Panthers semifinal round game against Eaton.
The Reds were not deterred by Delta's plight and raced around the base paths for 11 runs in the first inning on their way to a 15-0 victory.
Delta was limited to just five hits in the game with Porter leading the way with two hits, including a double. Senior Shianne Valdez, Trujillo and Ruble accounted for the other three hits.
Garcia was given the loss making her season record 4-2. Melanie Fye earned the victory and picked up her 10th win against two losses for Eaton.
Last year's 2A state champion, Strasburg, worked its magic to win its second straight state title with a 3-0 win over Eaton in the title game. Fye finished 10-3 for the season. Strasburg's Alexis Rayburn finished her season with another state title and a 12-2 record on the mound.
Delta coach Jerry Sandoval praised Sami Lane for taking Jenna Sufliff's spot at shortstop and Reagan Clay took over at second, where Lane had played all season. "Both did a great job stepping up in Jenna's absence," noted Sandoval.
Trips to state competition are not every year occurrences for most teams.
The Panthers have been frequent qualifiers in recent years and the experience of being there is one not easily forgotten. "It was an amazing experience making it to the Final Four. The girls showed amazing heart and character. If you could have seen their faces after that second game, they said it all."