GJ seniors confident heading into state tournament
Elisha Jahnke saw it Saturday when Grand Junction trailed Columbine by several runs early in their first-round regional game: the determination borne of a last chance.
The Tigers fought back to win that game 9-6, and Jahnke is positive the comeback was motivated greatly by a senior-laden lineup that sensed the urgency of the team’s situation.
A loss would have made the Tigers’ bid to qualify for the state softball tournament much more difficult. Instead, the Tigers advanced to the regional championship game, where they lost 12-2 to Fossil Ridge, then bounced back to beat Columbine one more time, 2-0, for second place and the second qualifier to state.
It is Grand Junction’s first trip to state since 1991, according to CHSAA records, and it’s only the second time the team has qualified for the state tournament.
Jahnke said the finality of this season registered with the team’s eight seniors in the regional opener.
“We said, ‘We can’t lose this game,’ ” Jahnke said. “This is our last chance to go to state.”
Seven of those seniors are starters, and most of them started a year ago. Some started as sophomores. They were members of two good Grand Junction teams that fell short of realizing the state dream. This year, they wanted a different outcome because this time around there would be no next year.
“We just fought and worked that much harder,” Jahnke said. “We all wanted to prove we could do this.”
The reward is a first-round game at 10 a.m. today against Dakota Ridge, the No. 4 seed in the field of 16 teams at Aurora Sports Complex.
The Tigers are seeded 13th, and that designation means little to them.
“We’re going in with confidence,” Grand Junction senior catcher Morgan Zanski said. “They’re a solid team. They have a really good pitcher, so we’re going to have to come out on top of our game with our sticks.”
Dakota Ridge’s ace, Rachelle Foos, went 14-2 with a 1.40 ERA during the regular season. The senior struck out 117 batters and walked only 21 in 105 innings.
The Tigers bring a good pitcher to the party, too. Jahnke went 11-4 in the regular season and delivered the shutout in Grand Junction’s second game against Columbine to earn the state berth. Jahnke is a control pitcher, walking only 21 batters in 102 2/3 innings, and her change-up can be devastating.
“If her change-up is on, if she’s throwing her off-speed for strikes, that’s a game-changer,” Tigers coach Adam Diaz said.
He added his team plays excellent defense behind her, giving her confidence to go after batters.
Dakota Ridge swings some big bats and hit .380 during the regular season. Chief among the big hitters are junior center fielder Dani Valerio, sophomore shortstop Megan Sansburn, and junior designated hitter Cassidy Creekmore.
Valerio is hitting a team-best .500 with 30 hits, including five triples, and she has team highs in runs (25) and stolen bases (15). Sansburn is batting .453 with three home runs among her 12 extra-base hits. And Creekmore is batting .436 with a team-high six home runs.
Grand Junction, meanwhile, hit .359 as a team during the regular season and has four starters hitting above .400: Jahnke, .444; junior first baseman Brittany Arcieri, .444; senior center fielder Bree Baldwin, .424; and junior shortstop Marisa Arrieta, .400.
Dakota Ridge was the state runner-up a year ago, and most of the teams in the field are seeded higher than Grand Junction, but Diaz said the Tigers are capable of playing with anyone in the tournament.
“There’s no team that stands out,” Diaz said. “We have a great shot that first game. We have to go out there and not make mistakes ... If we go out there and play and relax, go out there and play our level of ball and make them earn it, give them nothing, we can compete with anyone.”
Baldwin thinks like her coach and said the Tigers fear no challenge. She said Grand Junction even would welcome a rematch with Fossil Ridge.
“I really would,” she said. “I’d love to play that team again.”
She also believes the seniors are a determined bunch, which is why they’re in the position they’re in today.
“I want to say we’ve been out for blood a little bit this year,” Baldwin said. “We wanted to prove we’re good enough to get to state.”