Aztec holds off PV to advance to finals
RIO RANCHO — The No. 1 Aztec Lady Tigers will play for the 5A state softball title today.
Aztec earned its spot in the finals — where it will face No. 2 Centennial — after staving off elimination three times on Friday, beating No. 3 Roswell 4-0 in the morning and then trouncing No. 9 Artesia 13-0 before fighting off rival Piedra Vista 4-1 in a thrilling finish.
With a 4-1 lead in the seventh, Aztec was one out from securing the victory. The No. 4 Lady Panthers had runners on first and second with three-hole hitter Nykki Benally coming to the plate.
Aztec pitcher Paige Adair received the signal, wound up and delivered. Benally connected, and that instant, there was no doubt it was leaving the park.
Benally lifted her right fist in celebration after taking a couple of steps out of the batter’s box as the Lady Panthers flooded out of the dugout to meet the senior at home plate.
But as the ball continued to rise and travel farther from home, it drifted toward foul territory. The ball sailed above the foul pole in left field, sending Aztec into a plea for a foul call as PV begged the opposite.
After a slight hesitation, the umpire made his signal — foul.
PV made its case to the umpires, who huddled together in left field. And after a moment, the ruling was confirmed.
"Obviously, I saw a fair ball, but I’m biased," PV head coach Kevin Werth said. "It is what it is. (The umpires) saw something different."
The runners returned to their bases, and Benally to the box. Benally then grounded out to end the game.
"This was a big win," Aztec head coach Roy Johnson said. "Paige pitched her butt off, we hit the ball well, and that’s a good (PV) team. They’re always well coached, and we have a lot of respect for them, but we like beating them."
As she has been all season, Adair was the workhorse for the Lady Tigers on Friday, pitching all three games.
Against Roswell, the junior hurler struck out 13 batters, then fanned 10 in the game against Artesia before holding the potent Lady Panthers’ offense scoreless through the first six innings.
"I was on a mission," Adair said after the game on Friday. "We had a talk this morning about our mindset because we didn’t have a great day yesterday. We’re the top seed here, and we didn’t show it yesterday, but today we definitely showed how much heart this team has and how much we wanted it. I’ve played against those girls (the Lady Panthers) my whole life, and it sucks to see their seniors go out like that, but, I mean, it was great to do it against them."
In addition to the win over PV and the opportunity to play for a state title, this week’s tournament has had even more meaning for Adair, who made the trip with the Lady Tigers after her grandfather died on Monday.
And after the dominant day, Johnson had trouble finding a way to describe her performance.
"All I can say is, there’s not many Paige Adairs," he said.
Aztec scored one run in the third inning, getting an RBI from CheyAnne Simkins, then added one more in the fourth when Kylie Brown belted a solo homer to lead off the fourth inning.
The Lady Tigers added one run in the fifth on an RBI double from Adair and then scored their fourth run of the game on a PV error in the sixth.
PV had chances to score, getting runners on first and second with no outs in the first, fourth and fifth innings, but came up empty in each scenario.
"It’s a lot easier said than done," Werth said, referencing the stranded runners. "We play a game of failure. When you have opportunities like that, you have to take advantage of them, and we weren’t able to all weekend. We left a lot of runners stranded."
PV finally got on the board in the seventh inning when Nicole Johnson hit a solo home run to lead off the inning.
While the loss was tough for PV (20-10), Werth said the better team will be playing in the finals.
"The best team won today," he said. "Aztec is the No. 1 seed for a reason. We got them (Thursday), and we had to do a lot of stuff to get them. We tried it again today and it's tough to beat somebody that good twice."
Aztec (26-6) will meet Centennial (24-5) in the finals today and will have to beat the team twice to win the title. The Lady Hawks beat PV 1-0 on Friday morning to advance.
"We’re not done yet, I promise you. Whoever comes to see us tomorrow, they’ll see that team," Johnson said, referring to the fight Aztec showed in the PV game. "It will be hard to beat us, because we are pretty good when we want to be."
Karl Schneider is the sports editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4648.