We are the (Aurora) champions: Cherokee Trail softball team

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The Cherokee Trail softball team became the fourth Aurora program with a state championship to its credit, joining Gateway (1992), Eaglecrest (2005) and Grandview (2014). (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

AURORA | City teams and athletes won two team championships and three individual titles during the 2016 fall prep sports season. Here’s an in-depth look at the Cherokee Trail softball team, the Class 5A state champion:

Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel

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In just her second season as head coach, Caley Mitchell helped the Cherokee Trail softball team earn its first Class 5A state championship. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

CHEROKEE TRAIL: CLASS 5A SOFTBALL STATE CHAMPION

Softball was one of the sports that hit the ground running in terms of competition when Cherokee Trail High School opened its doors in 2004, but it took 12 seasons until the Cougars were able to hoist a state championship trophy. A program that was long known for winning in the regular season, but running into frustration come state tournament time and in fact had never advanced past the first round of the Class 5A state tournament since moving up to the highest classification in 2008. That all changed in 2016, when everything went right and the pieces finally fell together as Cherokee Trail finished off a championship run with a 1-0 win over Broomfield in eight innings at the Aurora Sports Park in just the second season under coach Caley Mitchell. Cherokee Trail became the fourth Aurora softball program with a state championship, joining Gateway (6A, 1992), Eaglecrest (5A, 2005) and Grandview (5A, 2014).

Seniors including Chloe Knapp, top left, Skylar Higens, center, and Sonoma Olson, top right, were key to Cherokee Trail's perseverance in a tight postseason that resulted in a Class 5A state softball championship. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)
Seniors including Chloe Knapp, top left, Skylar Higens, center, Sonoma Olson, top right, and Emily Bell, bottom right, were key to Cherokee Trail’s perseverance in a tight postseason that resulted in a Class 5A state softball championship. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

The Cougars displayed all the necessary championship ingredients during the regular season — in which they went 16-3 with losses to just Arvada West, Wheat Ridge and Mullen by a combined grand total of four runs — with a pair of outstanding pitchers in seniors Emily Bell and Audrey Pickett, a strong defense and an offense that was held below five runs just three times in the opening 19 games. Cherokee Trail earned its chance to play for the state championship with victories over Pine Creek and Brighton in regional qualifying, winning the latter game with a rally from five runs down for a walk-off win over the Bulldogs when sophomore Delanie Cox scored on a wild pitch. Seeded second, the Cougars took a big lead over Legacy in their opening round state contest until just holding on for an 11-10 win that seemed to break the postseason hex, then rallied past Rock Canyon 7-4 on a walk-off grand slam by senior Chloe Knapp, who would be just beginning her weekend of heroics. Cherokee Trail won for the third time against talented local rival Eaglecrest in the semifinals — with Knapp snaring the final out off the bat of Raptors’ slugger Rachel Sabourin deep in foul ground — to set up a showdown with top-seeded Broomfield for the state title.

Bell had a very strong season on the mound, but she saved her best game for the championship contest when she went the full eight innings against a dangerous Eagles team that had scored 35 runs in its first three games of the state tournament. The gritty right-hander kept the ball away from the big bats in Broomfield’s potent lineup and scattered just four hits, escaping trouble in both the first and seventh innings after surrendering leadoff doubles thanks to help from her defense. In the seventh, Bell kept the ball on the infield for three outs to extend the contest, with the final out recorded by reliable junior Lexi Gillen at second base. Cherokee Trail’s offense, meanwhile, had looked in fine form in the opening inning when it loaded the bases on a walk to junior Megan Medhus, a single by senior Skylar Higens and an error that put Knapp on, only to come up empty when Medhus was thrown out at the plate trying to score on a passed ball. The Cougars stranded runner after runner over the first four innings, but couldn’t break through. Until the top of the eighth, when Knapp strode to the plate and launched a frozen rope over the center field field for the only run of the game. Cherokee Trail finished with just four hits in the game, two for Knapp and one each for Higens and Haley Albers.