From left, juniors Jenna Medhus, Ryleigh Cruz, Brooke Scott and Jaelyn Martinez pose for a picture with the Class 5A state softball runner-up trophy after the Cougars’ 5-1 loss to Fossil Ridge Oct. 10 at the Aurora Sports Park. The 10th-seeded Cougars earned the chance to play 20 games in the coronavirus pandemic-shortened softball season and got the program into the state championship game for the third time in the past five seasons. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado)

On a cloudless, 85-degree October day — in the middle of a pandemic that has taken away so much — the Cherokee Trail softball team basked in the sun.

The Cougars surely shed tears after a 5-1 loss to Fossil Ridge in the Class 5A state championship game at the Aurora Sports Park, but merely being there meant everything.

While she doesn’t like being second, the joy coach Caley Mitchell watched her team experience over the past eight weeks — including a spirited state tournament run to the final as the No. 10 seed — made up for it.

“There’s so much crap in the world right now, that getting to play high school sports is such a bright spot for so many people, so we’re lucky to be able to do it,” said Mitchell, who had her program in the state title game for the third time in the past five season, including a win in 2016.

“There are so many other less cool things we could have been doing today than losing the state championship game, so that’s what we try to focus on,” she added. “It’s not always going to go your way, but we’re grateful for the opportunity.”

That opportunity nearly never happened when COVID-19’s invasion threatened the entire fall prep sports season.

Softball joined boys golf, boys tennis and cross country as one of the lucky four sports (now five with the late edition of football) that the Colorado High School Activities Association cleared to play with precautions in place.

So the Cougars gathered around the runner-up trophy — after they earned the right to play in 20 games, one of only six teams in the state to extend their season to the ultimate contest — and looked back on the experience with gratitude.

“We didn’t even know there would be softball this season, so the fact that we got to have a season and we extended it as much as possible and playing in the last game is amazing,” senior shortstop Kelsey Bell said.

“I’m so grateful we all stayed healthy and playing this many games is way better than nothing. We practiced every day that we didn’t play, so we were all together so much. It was great.”

That being said, Cherokee Trail wanted more and had it within reach.

A memorable week that included road upsets of No. 7 Horizon and No. 2 Broomfield (in a quarterfinal contest that took two days to complete) and a semifinal win over No. 3 Chatfield (powered by two home runs from junior Caitlin Cushenbery), the Cougars got rolling early against No. 4 Fossil Ridge in the title game.

Junior Ryleigh Cruz doubled on the first pitch of the game and scored on junior No. 2 hitter Brooke Scott’s lined single.

But surprisingly, that turned out to be all that the Cherokee Trail’s potent offense — which averaged more than nine runs per game and hadn’t scored fewer than four runs in their previous nine contests — mustered off SaberCats’ starter Nikki McGaffin. Eight of the nine Cougars in the lineup had a hit, but few were strung together.

Staked to a lead, junior pitcher Jenna Medhus — who worked all 29 postseason innings — held it for three innings, with help of a slick first inning double play turned by Bell and Cruz.

The SaberCats finally broke through in the fourth inning when they took advantage of some rare defensive miscues by the Cougars to score four times and added another run in the sixth inning on a home run to put the game away.

Medhus added six innings of state championship game experience to the 3 2/3 she logged as a freshman when the Cougars lost to Legend in the final, so she has plenty of experience to draw from going forward.

“You live for these moments, when your adrenaline is so high, you don’t really know what is going on,” Medhus said. “I think any pitcher would want to have this chance to pitch in the state final.

“I really wanted to win and I really thought we could,” she added. “We had a good chance, so I put it all out on the field.”

Armed with Medhus on the mound, four other juniors who were in the starting lineup for the title game in Cruz, Scott, Cushenbery and Jaelyn Martinez along with a sophomore (Jenna Fullmer) and two freshmen (Addison Krei and Chiara Pryor), the Cougars expect to be a favorite to win next season.

“I think next year is going to be a lot better,” Scott said. “We only lose two main people, we have a lot of juniors and our underclassmen are looking really good, so I have a really good feeling about next year.”

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