AURORA — In order for Columbine softball to have a different ending than last year, they needed a few fresh faces.
In Saturday’s Class 5A softball state title game at Aurora Sports Park against second-seed Douglas County, it was a freshman who seized the moment. With two outs in the bottom of the first inning, and already ahead 2-0 after Eva Martinez’s two-run home run, Nina Vargas hit her own two-run shot to left field to give the Rebels a 4-0 lead.
The three starting freshmen, including Vargas, Livi Keiter and Mason Abraham, drove in four runs for Columbine as the Rebels beat Douglas County 7-3 in its second state title game appearance, and first since 1994.
Last year, the Rebels lost 8-0 in the final to Legend, but Saturday was a drastically different story.
Columbine head coach Jim Santaniello knew that having three inexperienced players in the starting lineup was going to be a risk, particularly with a state championship on the line. On Saturday, though, you wouldn’t have noticed it. They more than matched the moment.
“They are just so ahead of their age right now,” Santaniello said. “(As a coach) you’re always worried to start a freshman but they just play like they’re 18-year-olds. We’re really fortunate to have those three.”
With a 4-0 lead after one inning already going in their favor, it was a cue for senior pitcher Araya Ogden to settle in. That’s exactly what she did. Even with a few minor jams with runners on base, Ogden pitched her way out of it, as she had a shutout going for six-plus innings until Douglas County made it interesting late with a three-run rally.
Ogden is committed to pitch at the Division I level. She will be attending Coppin State, a program which plays in the MEAC Conference and is based in Baltimore.
“I wasn’t afraid to pitch the ball where I needed to, because I knew (my defense) had my back,” said Ogden, who finished the game with an emphatic 21-1 record and an ERA of 0.97 with over 450 strikeouts. “… I took last year’s loss to heart because I wanted to win for my seniors, and now I can win for myself and the other seniors, it feels great.”
For Douglas County (26-3), the Huskies’ bats were humming throughout the state tournament, as they scored 24 runs in the quarterfinal and semifinal games. While they were silenced for most of the afternoon, head coach Katherine Drake knew her team had fight, as they had come back from multiple-run deficits in the seventh inning on five different occasions this year.
“What was amazing about our team is that we didn’t back down,” she said. “Our girls battled today and even when things weren’t going away we knew what we could do because we had done it so many times this year. In the end, it just wasn’t our day.”
Columbine knows it will have plenty of teams looking to overtake them next year. But for Ogden, now that the program has two titles and three state final appearances in four years (2019 was the other crown), the key for fending off the other programs? Fresh faces and good energy.
“I’d like to see them come back here and win another,” Ogden said. “I hope that they can pull it out. This group has pitching and they can just become a team and really have that energy.”