Saturday was a long time coming for the Tooele softball team.
The Buffaloes hadn’t played in a state championship game since 2011, when their coach, Marissa Lowry, was wrapping up her illustrious prep career on her way to the University of Utah, and current seniors Amber Lujan and Hope Weight were wrapping up fourth grade. Tooele hadn’t won a title since 2010 after having won nine state championships over a 20-season span.
But when Weight fielded a grounder from Spanish Fork’s Marae Condie and flipped it to first baseman Kennedie Anderson for the final out of the Buffs’ 3-1 win over the Dons in Saturday’s Class 4A championship game at the Spanish Fork Sports Park, the wait was over for Tooele. After years of coming tantalizingly close, the Buffaloes finally had their 10th state title, tying Manti for the most in Utah high school softball history.
“This is so surreal — oh, man, I can’t even wrap my mind around it right now,” Lujan said, wiping away tears of joy. “I’m really proud of everybody and all the work they’ve done. They’ve worked so hard for this. We deserve this.
“This is just unreal to me and I’m so thankful for these girls and everything they’ve done. They’ve taught me so much over the years. I’m just so happy for all of us and so proud.”
The Buffs (26-3) came into the championship round as the only undefeated team left in the state tournament, having shut out Desert Hills, Spanish Fork, Cedar and Bear River over their first four games. But the Dons (28-8), playing in front of a rowdy, partisan crowd and having made an impressive run through the one-loss bracket after losing to the Buffs a week earlier, pushed Tooele to the brink by picking up a 5-2 win in the first game of the championship round. The Buffs committed four errors in that contest, which proved to be their only loss to a Class 4A opponent all season.
That lit a fire under Weight, the Buffs’ second baseman who had committed one of those errors and was looking for redemption. She got it with the championship hanging in the balance in the seventh inning of Game 2. First, Spanish Fork’s Samantha Cowden hit a screaming line drive toward the right side of the infield, only to have Weight rob her of a base hit with a diving grab to her left. Amanda Mitchell hit another ground ball that Weight handled effortlessly for the second out, and Condie’s groundout ended the contest.
“After the first game, I was upset that I didn’t get that (ball),” Weight said. “Most of the time, (pitcher Attlyn Johnston) strikes them out, so I never get the ball. I get thrilled when the ball comes to me, so I was glad I could get those three outs for my team.”
Lujan wasn’t surprised to see her fellow senior step up.
“I love her,” Lujan said. “She’s amazing. She’s always been amazing. She always comes up in the clutch and you can always count on her in the field. I’m so happy to have her with me.”
Lowry was also happy for Weight.
“Before the inning, I pulled them all aside and I said, ‘three outs, one out at a time, someone needs to make that big play,’” Lowry said. “Hope did exactly that, so I’m proud of her. As a senior, she’s a quiet leader and she does what’s asked. She makes big plays like that all the time.
“From the very beginning, we talk about having short-term memory and having to play one pitch at a time. That’s what we did as soon as we lost the first game. We knew that we had to do the little things after we had three or four errors in the first game that cost us the game, so I told them that we just had to forget about it. That’s exactly what they did.”
Tooele took the lead in the second inning of the finale and never looked back. Natalee Bevan hit a leadoff double, and courtesy runner Taylor Valencia stole third and came home on a Spanish Fork error. Emma Higley singled and scored on a two-out RBI double to left by Bryerly Avina to extend the lead to 2-0.
The Buffs made it 3-0 in the top of the third inning, as Kate Hogan singled and scored on a two-out RBI single by Higley. It would have been 4-0 if not for a perfect throw to Dons catcher Oakley Bates from center fielder Condie that beat Paige Rydalch to the plate, but it ended up not mattering.
Johnston, admittedly frustrated after suffering a rare loss in Game 1, had things firmly under control in the clincher. She gave up a run in the fifth inning when Briley Young scored on a sacrifice bunt by Condie, but only allowed six hits, struck out five and walked none in a complete-game effort.
“We decided to come together as a team, rather than going out where some people were there and some people aren’t,” Johnston said. “We really bonded together to know that we all had to do this together, not just as one player.”
Lowry said it was typical of Johnston to step up when her team needed her most.
“Attlyn has always told me that she works better in pressure situations like that,” Lowry said. “It shows. It came down to it, and she did great. She exceeded our expectations for her.”
Tooele had the early lead in Game 1 as well, aided by a one-out solo home run by Avina in the first inning and a leadoff solo shot by Bevan in the second. However, a four-pitch walk and an error with tow outs in the top of the fifth allowed the Dons to score an unearned run, giving them a bit of momentum, and then the wheels came off in the sixth with multiple errors and a dropped third strike leading to four more Spanish Fork runs.
“We didn’t let it tear us down,” Lujan said. “We just went out and said, ‘this is what makes it fun. Just come back and really make it hurt — really go out and push hard and show them what you’re made of, show them why we’re here and why we deserve to be here.”
The Buffs’ resolve led to a finish none of them will ever forget.
“I am so, so thrilled that I can leave this high school knowing that I helped this team become a state champ,” Weight said. “It’s the best feeling ever.”
Tooele 1, Bear River 0
Weight singled and scored on a Bear River error in the third inning, and Johnston made it stand up with a complete-game, one-hit, 14-strikeout masterpiece. The victory over the Region 12 champion Bears put the Buffaloes into the championship round for the first time in eight years. Hogan added a double for the Buffs.
Tooele 10, Cedar 0, (6)
On Thursday, Johnston threw a complete-game two-hitter with 12 strikeouts and Hogan hit a grand slam as the Buffs run-ruled the Lady Reds, who were the Region 9 champions. Lujan and Kennedie Anderson each had a double as part of a four-run third inning.