The first two softball games between the Rifle junior varsity team and the Steamboat Springs varsity team were close, one-run games that ended in extra innings.
On Friday, in the regular season finale for the Sailors, they did everything in their power to eliminate the late-inning drama, defeating the Bears, 13-3, in just six innings.
A regulation softball game lasts seven.
Steamboat's win ensured the team of a perfect regular season finish (10-0) in the program's first year as a varsity sport at the high school.
"It feels like we've been here longer," Justine Warner said.
Warner helped the Sailors end the game early with her hit down the third-base line in the bottom of the sixth. Steamboat had bases loaded and no outs when Warner stepped into the box.
Rifle's Candace Stilsen fielded Warner's slow roller down the line and threw home to try to get the lead runner out on a force. Stephanie Engle slid beneath the tag, and the ball squirted away from Rifle catcher Katie Buchanan, allowing Jessica Dover to come home with the game-winning run on the fielder's choice hit from Warner.
Steamboat coach Donna Ryan said she had a feeling before Thursday's game that the final matchup between the Sailors and Bears would not be close this time around. When Kirsten Ryan is on the mound, the Sailors are aggressive at the plate, and the defense makes plays when it has to.
Ryan, Donna Ryan's daughter, struck out 13 Rifle batters Thursday, but she didn't think she pitched that well, having to go deeper in counts than she prefers. She ended up walking four, but when Ryan found herself in a jam in the top of the fifth inning, she pitched her way out by striking out two batters and getting the third to pop up to third baseman Leigh Thielen.
Rifle scored all three of its runs in the fifth.
Steamboat got on the scoreboard first in the bottom of the second, capitalizing on Rifle errors and a timely hit from Kelly Labor. Thielen scored the game's first run on a bases-loaded walk to Brittany Rummel. Dover, who doubled down the first base line, and Anya Salzgeber, who drew a walk, came around to score on Labor's 2 RBI-single. Rummel came around to score on Ryan's hit.
Steamboat added another run in the third when Thielen reached on an infield single and made her way to third after stealing second and advancing to third on a wild pitch. Dover reached on a single, and an errant throw to second to try to catch Dover stealing ended up in the outfield, allowing Thielen to score easily.
The defensive play of the game came in the top of the fourth when shortstop Rachel Hilterbrand made a spectacular running play, sweeping up the softball and throwing in one motion. Jenna Hammerslag made a great scoop at first to get the Bears runner out by half a step.
The Sailors extended their 5-0 lead in the bottom half of the inning, putting the game away when Labor, Ryan, Hammerslag and Kathleen Lyon all came around to score. Hammerslag had a 2-RBI single in the inning.
For the game, Steamboat had 11 hits and committed just two errors, which came in the fifth inning. Rifle had six errors and three hits. Pitcher Trisha Wailes walked 11 Steamboat batters and struck out four.
Kirsten Ryan said the Sailors have made a significant amount of progress since they opened the season and barely defeated the same Rifle junior varsity squad.
"Our hitting has improved," she said. "We are learning more bout the game. The mental mistakes have dropped."
Donna Ryan agreed that the Sailors' hitting has been the perfect complement to the pitching and defense. Steamboat has few batters that step into the box and look unsure of themselves, and even those who seek to gain more confidence with each at-bat reached base Thursday.
Up next for Steamboat is the district tournament. The Sailors didn't play a full varsity schedule, so they are an automatic No. 7 seed and will face the No. 2 seed who is yet to be determined. Steamboat will open the district tournament at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 16 in Palisade.
Warner said the team has set a goal of making it to the state tournament, a seemingly lofty goal for a first-year program.
"We set it from the beginning," she said. "In the first game that we had, that's where it started. At the end of the very first game, we said we wanted to win state."