RIO RANCHO — There is something to be said for just showing up.
For the past seven seasons, the Lady Vegas Robertson Lady Cardinals showed up to the Class 3A State Softball Tournament, usually as a favorite. Usually, they left bitterly disappointed, having underperformed in the biggest tournament of the year.
On Thursday, Las Vegas Robertson finally lived up to the lofty expectations the program has created. The top-seeded Lady Cardinals blew apart a pitchers’ duel with three runs in the seventh inning and went on to a 4-1 win over No. 3 Santa Fe Indian School in the 3A winner’s bracket final of the double-elimination tournament at Rio Rancho High School.
For the first time in program history, Robertson (24-4) will play for the 3A title against SFIS at 11 a.m. Friday at Lobo Field at the University of New Mexico. The Lady Braves (20-11) earned a rematch after beating No. 2 Cobre, 1-0, in the consolation bracket final Thursday night.
It sets up the fifth matchup between the two teams and potentially a sixth if SFIS can win the first game. Robertson, though, has had the answer in taking down the Lady Braves, having won all four games this season.
When Gabriella Rivera fired the ball to Leigha Lucero at first to retire Santa Fe Indian School’s Celest Lucero for the final out, the Lady Cardinals exploded in celebration. Afterward, though, second baseman Arianna Archuleta explained it was as much a celebration of relief as it was joy.
“After the game, it was like, ‘Wow, we finally did it!’ ” Archuleta said.
It was in stark contrast to a season ago, when Robertson rolled into the single-elimination 3A tournament at 17-0 when the season was derailed by crosstown rival West Las Vegas, 6-4, in the semifinals. It left a bitter taste in many of the Lady Cardinals’ mouths, and most of them returned to wash it away.
And it was a pair of Ariannas — Archuleta and Sanchez — who made this trip to Rio Rancho much sweeter.
Archuleta’s star turn came as a result of the Lady Braves’ master plan of not pitching to the clean-up hitting Lucero, one of five starters batting over .500. In fact, she was at .646 on the season with nine home runs and 46 RBIs. Lucero, though, was an astounding 7-for-9 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in three games against the Lady Braves. This time around, she was intentionally walked in all four of her at-bats. Archuleta, who batted in front of Lucero in the 3-hole, had the task of making SFIS pay for its plan.
After the two teams dueled to a scoreless and hitless battle entering the fourth inning, the dam the Lady Braves tried to build around the Robertson offense showed its first cracks. A lead-off single by Rivera ended Lady Braves ace Shadè-Phea Young’s attempt at a no-hitter, but she was retired on Taylor Quintana’s fielder’s choice. However, exchanging the lumbering Rivera for the fleet Quintana proved to be fruitful on the basepaths when Archuleta blooped a hit in front of a diving Hannah Martinez in left field that she could not hold for a run-scoring double to make it 1-0, Lady Cardinals.
Two innings later, Archuleta found herself in a similar surrounding, as Quintana had a one-out single and stole second when Archuleta came up to the plate. After fouling off a pitch, Archuleta lined a double into the right-center gap to score Quintana and start a three-run rally to pad the margin to 4-0.
Archuleta said a strikeout in her previous at-bat was the impetus for her back-to-back hits.
“I was nervous, but I knew I had to get a base hit there,” Archuleta said. “If I get a base hit, Taylor’s is at home already, easily.”
Four runs was a luxury for Sanchez, who only really needed one to get her team closer to the promised land. She held the Lady Braves without a hit through 4⅔ innings before Jocelyn Sanchez’s single broke it up. She only allowed a hit and a walk until SFIS strung together three hits in the bottom of the seventh for its lone run.
Sanchez has been sublime against the Lady Braves, allowing just nine hits in three complete-game performances — all wins for the 14-2 ace.
Her ability to throw strikes and rely on her defense has been a crucial part of her success.
“Pitching is not about speed,” Sanchez said. “It’s about putting the ball in play for your defense to work. So, it helps out a lot when you hit the spots and if they don’t get it ...”
However, Young offers the alternate view on pitching, as she had overpowered West Las Vegas and Cobre to reach the winner’s bracket final and recorded double-digit strikeouts in the process. She had 10 against the Lady Cardinals, but she allowed four hits, five walks (four were intentional) and she hit two batters. While Sanchez relied on her defense, Young seemed to be betrayed by SFIS’ defense.
She pitched around errors in the first two innings, and an error in the seventh led to the second of three runs scored. She also hit a batter to push across the other run.
SFIS head coach Oliver Torres said his team has a mental block against the Lady Cardinals, and it shows in how they play in the field and struggle at the plate.
“Having structure and playing loose and comfortable plays a big deal on the field,” Torres said. “It seems like whenever we play Robertson, we’re tight. It’s something we need to get over that hump and I think we can do it. We’re right there, but we need to break the ice by maybe getting a lead early or something.”
The Lady Braves continued to struggle at the plate, as they managed just a first-inning run against Cobre but could do little else afterward. Young had to rely on her defense more as she only registered four strikeouts, but the Lady Braves were up for the challenge.
Whether they can muster a performance to force the “if game” against the Lady Cardinals remains to be seen.
They’ve done the first part by showing up. Robertson, though, has its set sight on doing more than that.
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Alexis Pacheco threw to first base for the final out. It was Gabriella Rivera.