TAYLORSVILLE Two of the state's biggest softball heavyweights went toe-to-toe on the Valley Softball Complex ring in the 4A state championship, with the winner claiming its second straight state title.
Both Murray and Tooele came in as defending state champions, but it was the Buffaloes that added another trophy to the case as they came out on top in a tough contest, taking out the Spartans for the second time in two days. It was 4-3 Tooele in the state championship matchup, and the Buffaloes felt vindicated that they could play with anyone in the state, even at the next-highest level.
After coming up victorious in the 3A championship in four of the previous five seasons, the Buffaloes were moved up to the 4A ranks this year and had the chance to play those higher-division teams when it really counted.
"We proved we can play in any division and still be on the top," said Tooele freshman Marissa Mendenhall, who smacked a single deep into the outfield in the bottom of the seventh with one out and a runner on first for the game-winning RBI.
After 2 1/2 scoreless innings, the Buffaloes took charge in the third as Matti Snow led things off with a single and, with one out, Kelsey Mendenhall painted the third-base line with an RBI double to put the Buffaloes on the scoreboard. Brittany Gonzales added an RBI single up the middle to give Tooele a 2-0 lead.
But that lead was short-lived as the Spartans, who barely survived an earlier shootout with Bountiful just to get to the championship game, went on a little roll of their own.
Freshman pitcher Taylor Gallegos singled up the middle to start the inning, and with one out, Mallory Hyland added another single to put a pair on the bases for Ciera Nordin. Nordin then proceeded to crush one over the center-field fence for a three-run homer and a 3-2 lead.
"I knew they were good hitters, and today was not my day, so I just tried to get it into the strike zone and trusted my defenders," said 4A tournament MVP Lauren Folta, whose team only gave up 10 total runs in its five tournament games.
"This is great for senior year and our first year in 4A. It's really a relief, we wanted it so badly," Folta, who has signed to play for Dixie State next season, said.
After Murray took the 3-2 lead, neither team could add a run to the board through the top half of the sixth inning, as the Buffaloes left three stranded in the fifth.
But they came out strong with plenty of intensity in the bottom of the sixth as unsung hero Jordan McMain doubled one under the left-field fence to put herself into scoring position with two outs. Snow came through with a blooper to short right center that scored McMain and evened things up at 3-3.
Murray couldn't get a hit off of Folta in the seventh, and Tooele recorded an out to start the bottom of the inning. But Gonzales singled to left, and Marissa Mendenhall stepped calmly to the plate and lined her own single to deep center, which was just enough to bring the runner around with the game-winner.
"I just wanted a base hit to advance the runner. It was just like don't catch it so that she can advance, then I saw her score and my heart dropped," Mendenhall said.
"I knew we could do it. I knew we had a team that could do it, and I don't think we ever peaked. These girls just know the game and they know what it takes to win," said Tooele coach Barry Pitt of his team's timely plays.
"I loved that ending. In tournament play, you don't care how they come a win's a win," he said, noting how excited he was for the younger Mendenhall to be on his team for three more years.
But while the Buffaloes celebrated, the Spartans were in tears because coming in second wasn't nearly as good as the championship they experienced in 2007.
"They all wanted it, and most of them have been here before. It's just really tough to come up short," said Murray coach Lisa Parker, who added, "A lot of people never thought we'd get to this game. I was pleased with the heart they showed out there today."
It was never a foregone conclusion that the two defending champions would be playing each other Thursday as Bountiful had other ideas when it took the field against the Spartans earlier in the day for the right to play Tooele.
And the Braves came in ready to play when Kim Weese and Madison White hit back-to-back home runs in the first inning for Bountiful, and they extended the lead to 9-4 heading into the bottom of the sixth inning. That was when Murray went to work and put four more runs on the board to make it 9-8.
Then in the bottom of the seventh, Tanisha Anderson and Monica Moffitt each walked to put a pair of runners on with two outs, and Lyndi Miller followed with the single. Parker held the runner up at third instead of trying to score, and in the end the controversial decision just might have proved the game-winner.Gallegos then walked the first runner in and Malia Campos knocked a shot through White's legs to bring in the winning run and send the Spartans into the championship game against Tooele.