Caitlin Cushenbery, right, hugs Jenna Medhus after the Cherokee Trail softball team’s 5-1 loss to Fossil Ridge in the Class 5A state softball championship game on Oct. 10, 2020, at the Aurora Sports Park. The 10th-seeded Cougars finished a 17-3 season with the program’s third state title game appearance in the last five seasons. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado)

AURORA | Ahead by a run and playing loose for the first few innings, the Cherokee Trail softball team was on track to claim its second all-time Class 5A state title Saturday.

Then, the fourth inning happened at the Aurora Sports Park.

Fourth-seeded Fossil Ridge capitalized on a rare shaky inning for the 10th-seeded Cougars, plating four runs, which proved to be enough to carry the fourth-seeded SaberCats to a 5-1 victory and its first-ever state championship.

“We had our chances, we just didn’t play our best game,” said Cherokee Trail coach Caley Mitchell, who guided the program to the 2016 state championship and to runner-up finishes this season and in 2018.

“We approached the game all the ways we wanted to, we just didn’t execute one a couple of routine plays that give some momentum and then one big hit and you are down 4-1 before you know it,” she added. “There just wasn’t enough time to put it back together and Fossil Ridge is a good team.”

The Cougars (17-3) came in with momentum from a 5-1 victory over Chatfield in the semifinals in which they scored all of their runs in the final two innings, including two home runs from junior catcher Caitlin Cushenbery.

Cherokee Trail’s bats started strong in the championship game when junior Ryleigh Cruz doubled on the first pitch of the game off Fossil Ridge starting pitcher Nikki McGaffin and scored on junior Brooke Scott’s single. Junior Jenna Medhus tried to bunt, but was called out for being outside the batter’s box, which cut down the rally.

The Cougars also lined into a double play in the second inning and bunted into a double play in the fourth against McGaffin, which kept them from gaining more offensive traction. McGaffin yielded one hit to eight of Cherokee Trail’s nine hitters, but worked around it with the double plays along with a handful of lazy fly balls to the outfield and two foul pop-ups.

“When we scored the first run, I hoped we could take that through the rest of teh game and score some more, but Nikki got better towards the end and we just didn’t make good adjustments at the plate,” said Medhus, who finished 1-for-3. “She won that battle.”

For her part, Medhus — who had an outstanding postseason and worked all 29 innings for Cherokee Trail — kept Fossil Ridge off the scoreboard until the fourth inning, which snowballed a bit on the Cougars.

The SaberCats batted around in the inning, which started with McGaffin’s spinning squibber just inside the line at first base that allowed her to reach. Two walks and two hits followed, including an RBI single by Bella Forbes to tie the game. Kodi Alvord — whose walk-off home run in the quarterfinals lifted Fossil Ridge over Cherokee Trail’s Centennial League rival Smoky Hill — worked a bases-loaded walk to push the SaberCats ahead and Elizabeth Browning served a two-run single to center to extend the rally.

The inning deflated the Cougars, who had a hard time getting their earlier momentum back.

“We had a couple of errors and they took advantage of that, but that’s part of the game and you have to overcome them,” Medhus said. “We let them get to us a little bit more than we should have.”

The Cougars went down in order in the fifth and sixth innings and found themselves in a four-run deficit going into the final inning after Alvord’s solo home run in the sixth.

Cherokee Trail tried to rally as freshman Addison Krei singled and sophomore Jenna Fullmer also got a hit to put two aboard before freshman Chiara Prior took a called third strike to end the game.

Shortstop Kelsey Bell — who was on the roster for the 2018 state championship game loss and whose older sister, Emily, was on the winning 2016 roster — was one of just two seniors in the lineup for the title game and had perspective, especially considering how uncertain the season was with the coronavirus pandemic.

“I was definitely a lot more stressed my sophomore year because it was so new to me, but this year I realized that whatever was going to happen was going to happen, the worst you can do is lose,” Bell said. “I was still alive after we lost the first time, so I just tried to be as positive as possible.”

The silver lining to the loss comes in the promise of the future as only Bell (who committed to the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs) and first baseman Abby Rupeka graduate, while the five juniors, one sophomore and two freshmen that played the entire game expect to return.

“I think next year is going to be better, we’re only losing two main people, we have a lot of juniors and our underclassmen are looking really good,” said Scott, who hit nearly .500 on the season. “I have a really good feeling about next year.”

Mitchell, who admittedly is tired of finishing second, is also to see how the experience strengthens her team for another run next season.

“Once you’ve been here and tasted it, it seems like anything less than that is not living up to your potential,” she said. “We only lose two kids this year and all the rest of these kids are coming back and they know what it feels like. The bar is set, so I don’t see us going anywhere.”

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

2020 CLASS 5A STATE SOFTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

(4) FOSSIL RIDGE 5, (10) CHEROKEE TRAIL 1

Score by innings:

Cher. Trail    100 000 0 — 1  8  2

Fossil Ridge  000 401 x — 5  7  0

CHEROKEE TRAIL (ab-h-r-rbi)

Ryleigh Cruz 2b 3-1-1-0, Brooke Scott cf 3-0-1-1, Caitlin Cushenbery c 3-0-0-0, Jenna Medhus p 3-0-1-0, Addison Krei 3b 3-0-1-0, Kelsey Bell ss 3-0-1-0, Jaelyn Martinez lf 3-0-1-0, Jenna Fullmer dp 3-0-1-0, Chiara Prior rf 3-0-1-0. Totals 27-1-8-1. Pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so): Jenna Medhus (L, 6-7-5-4-3-9).

FOSSIL RIDGE (ab-h-r-rbi)

Kodi Alvord c 3-1-2-2, Elizabeth Browning rf 3-0-1-0, Katelyn Hays ss 3-0-1-0, Nikki McGaffin p 3-0-0-0, Mia Moore 2-0-1-0, Jordan McKinnon 1b 1-1-0-0, Rachel McClave 3-0-0-0, Bella Forbes 3-1-1-0, Sierra Champion 3-1-1-0. Totals 24-5-7-5. Pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so): Nikki McGaffin (W, 7-8-1-1-1-2).

2B — Cherokee Trail: Ryleigh Cruz. HR — Fossil Ridge: Kodi Alvord (solo in 6th)