Caley Mitchell knew what was outside of the Centennial League bubble and knew her team belonged.
The Cherokee Trail coach knew her team deserved more respect than it was asfforded on the outside after playing the entire season against only league teams, so she couldn’t wait for the Cougars to prove it.
So while it might have been a surprise to some, it wasn’t to those in the league when 10th-seeded Cherokee Trail went on the road and handled seventh-seeded Horizon 7-0 Oct 6 in the opening round of the Class 5A state softball tournament.
“I think any time you aren’t having to face a team for the third or fourth time it’s helpful, so it was nice to get out of our Centennial League bubble and compete,” Mitchell said.
“I don’t see this as an upset. We were the No. 10 seed as a result of our schedule, not as the result of our talent, so we were not afraid of this game.”
That being said, Mitchell is just glad her team made it to the postseason after the coronavirus pandemic turned the sport upside down.
The Colorado High School Activities cut down the length of the regular season and eliminated the regional tournaments that determined the state tournament field — which often allowed good teams from stacked leagues to earn their way into state — and replaced it with a seeding formula.
A large part of that formula was strength of schedule as determined by the MaxPreps website and with the Centennial League choosing to only play each other — 12 regular season games and the three-game Centennial League Challenge mini-tournament to end it — it hurt league frontrunners Smoky Hill and Cherokee Trail.
The Buffaloes (16-1) and Cougars (15-2) went a combined 22-2 in league play, with the only two losses coming when they played each other, which served to hinder the records of their fellow league teams, which had an affect on another part of the state qualifying equation, RPI.
Those factors didn’t hurt Smoky Hill much, as it qualified for the state tournament automatically as winner of the league title (and received the No. 5 seed), but it did ding Cherokee Trail, which ended up 10th. The Cougars beat Smoky Hill 7-5 in the Centennial League Challenge final Oct. 3 to spoil the Buffaloes’ bid for an undefeated regular season.
“RPI-wise a lot of our teams didn’t have a good showing and they were down, but in the games where we were actually playing them, they were very good,” Mitchell said. “Our strength of schedule and RPI didn’t accurately reflect our season. I thought a 10 seed was low for us, but at the beginning of the season we stressed out about even making it in light of our league situation, so beggars can’t be choosers.”
Smoky Hill coach B.J. Kingsbaker also took issue with the perceived weakness of schedule attributed to the Centennial League — which might have had better state representation if regionals were in place — but he was relieved the late loss to Cherokee Trail didn’t hurt his team’s postseason position.
“I really don’t know how it happened, but it worked out for us,” Kingsbaker said. “I don’t think there are five places between us and CT, but I would take either of our positions. We’re going to get to see how good our league is,” he added.
While Smoky Hill and Cherokee Trail were the only two Centennial League teams to get into the 16-team state tournament, the Front Range League had five qualifiers.
The Buffaloes and Cougars — each grateful to be on opposite sides of the state tournament bracket from each other after meeting three times in the regular season — each knocked out one of those teams in the first round, as Smoky Hill posted a 7-0 home win over No. 11 Rocky Mountain and Cherokee Trail topped Horizon.
The Cougars used a familiar formula to beat Horizon (15-2) as they made routine plays, got quality at-bats in key situations and got an outstanding effort from junior pitcher Jenna Medhus, who held a Hawks team averaging 12-plus runs per game without a run on only three hits.
“Shutting down a team that was the seven seed and putting up a shutout I think puts some good respect on our league and says we can compete with anybody,” Medhus said.
Juniors Caitlin Cushenbery and Ryleigh Cruz and freshman Addison Krei each had three hits, while Cushenbery and senior Kelsey Bell each drove in a pair of runs.
Smoky Hill got to play on its home field thanks to its seeding and enjoyed the comforts of home in a victory over Rocky Mountain that saw junior Delaney Farnsworth throw a complete game, limiting the Lobos (who hadn’t been shut out all season) to four hits and striking out eight.
Farnsworth helped herself with a solo home run and junior Khya Jennings drove in a pair of runs to give Smoky Hill more than enough offense to get to the 5A quarterfinals for the first time since 2018.
The Buffaloes and Cougars both moved a step closer to reaching the Aurora Sports Park — site of the semifinals and championship game Oct. 10 — needing wins at No. 4 Fossil Ridge and No. 2 Broomfield, respectively, in 4 p.m. road quarterfinals Oct. 8.
A third Aurora program qualified for the 5A playoff in Regis Jesuit, which gratefully made it into the field despite losses in its last two regular season games that left coach Merideth Feik’s Raiders wondering if they would get in.
They did as the No. 14 seed, which pitted them against third-seeded Chatfield. The Chargers came away with a 13-2 victory despite a home run from Chloe Valdez and another RBI from fellow senior Jo Caldwell.
Feik’s team finished the season 10-7.
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports