No. 1 Sabino over No. 2 Empire 5-2

May 20, 2023 by Andy Morales, AZPreps365

Sabino. (Andy Morales/AAZPreps365)

There was no rain, no lightning and no tarps Saturday morning at Cherry Field in Tucson but there was plenty of lightning on the diamond with No. 1 Sabino outlasting No. 2 Empire 5-2 to win the 3A Conference state championship for the fourth year in a row.

Sabino (30-3) took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second after Reese McFarland put down a sacrifice bunt that was misplayed, allowing Xitlali Zuniga to score from second on the bobble at first base. Bailey Nichols moved over to third from first and McFarland moved to second on the play. Zuniga was the courtesy runner for senior catcher Gianna Pancost, who started the inning off by reaching on a hit-by-pitch, and Nichols was walked. Sophomore infielder Alyssa Aguirre came up next and her grounder was also misplayed, allowing Nichols to score. Kendall Freidinger (21-2) picked up a strikeout to end the inning.

Sabino senior Jesamin Aguilar put the Sabercats up 3-0 on a solo shot to start the bottom of the third inning and her eighth home run of the year ultimately proved to be the game winner.

Both teams were unable to cash in on any opportunities until the bottom of the fifth with Riley McFarland doubling in Aguirre and Aguilar with two outs. Aguirre led the inning off with a single and Aguilar was intentionally walked.

The Ravens got two runs back in the top of the sixth after Morgan Faunce blasted a 2-run shot to score Eva Peace and herself. Sabercat sophomore Avery Nielson (19-1) gave up two hits the rest of the way, including a double to Freidinger but she held on for the win with nine strikeouts (160) and two earned runs. Her sister, Riley Nielson, led Sabino to back-to-back championships in 2021 and 2022.

Freidinger collected 10 strikeouts (293) with three earned runs. Freidinger and Nielson compete for the same club program, along with several other players from Sabino and Empire, and the group headed to Phoenix after the game to start the summer qualifying season.

The championship game was originally scheduled to be played Saturday, May 13 at ASU but the contest was moved to the University of Arizona to keep the game as local as possible for Sabino and Empire. It was set to be the first game of a double header with the 4A final on Tuesday night but field conditions from a rain storm forced a cancellation, which moved the 3A final to Wednesday night. That game was deemed a no contest after it was called in the second inning due to heavy rains and lightning and the decision was made to play at Cherry Field on Saturday once the storm system passed.

This was the sixth state championship for the Sabercats and Empire has two with the last coming in 2017. The Ravens moved up to the 5A Conference where the team made a semifinal appearance in 2019. Empire moved back down to the 3A level and the Ravens and Sabercats have met several times since with Sabino coming out on top of three extra inning games in 2021, including an epic 1-0 victory for Sabino in the semifinal round that lasted 15 innings. Sabino beat Empire in the semifinal round in 2022 and the Sabercats scratched out a 2-1 victory over the Ravens earlier this year.

Sabino’s three losses came to 4A Conference powers Paradise Honors (4-0), Canyon del Oro (3-0) and Salpointe (10-3) which guaranteed a top seed. Both of the losses suffered by the Ravens this year came to Sabino.

Empire (Andy Morales/AZPreps365)