West’s power display in finale carries Panthers to 5A softball championship

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) West high short stop Huntyr Ava celebrates as she rounds second base after hitting a home run in the first to two games against the Bountiful Braves,in the 5A state championship game in Taylorsville, Thursday May 30, 2019

Taylorsville • A near-perfect regular season and a near-perfect start to the 5A state softball tournament were both nearly wiped out for the West High Panthers when they returned from a lengthy, weather-aided layoff and shockingly were relegated to the losers’ bracket with a stunning defeat in the quarterfinals.

So the team’s seven seniors — who’ve been playing together since they were 8 years old — kicked out the coaches and held a players-only meeting to get things back on track. The message?

“Really, the big thing in the back of our minds was, we didn’t come to this state tournament 25-1 to just lose,” said Keisha White.

And so they didn’t again.

The Panthers reeled off three straight victories in the losers’ bracket to make it to Thursday’s 5A championship round at the Valley Regional Softball Complex. There, they took on Bountiful — a team that had outscored its previous tourney opponents by a combined 36-6 — and drubbed the Braves twice, winning the first game 13-2, then cranking eight homers in the finale (including three by White) for a 17-4 victory that gave them the state title.

West coach Keith Lopati said the 13-day layoff after the tournament’s first two rounds (which saw some built-in time off followed by a week’s worth of rain delays) served to wipe out the team’s momentum from tourney-opening 16-1 and 10-2 victories. Still, after the Panthers’ unbelievable 2-1 loss to Roy on Wednesday, he had no doubt his players would bounce back.

“They worked so hard for it. With that two-week break, it was tough for us to get going. But today — and yesterday — was a testimony of how hard these ladies worked. They’ve done that all year,” Lopati said. “I’m glad they showed up, I’m glad they played well, because it would have been disappointing if they didn’t. And they rose to the occasion.”

And then some.

In the opener, they steadily built the advantage by getting on board, being aggressive on the basepaths, and timely, two-out hitting. For Bountiful, it was death by a thousand pinpricks, as a walk issued here, a failure to field the ball cleanly there and too many well-placed hits allowed a 1-1 tie turn into a 4-1 deficit, then 7-1, then 10-1, and so on.

If it seemed to take forever, well, by the time the 2-hour, 45-minute marathon was over, the Braves seemed drained both physically and mentally.

Meanwhile, the Panthers were ready to go for the jugular.

While the opener was a brilliant display of smallball, Game 2 was a mesmerizing display of the power of the longball. The scoring started in the top of the third with a single by Cheyenne Su’eSu’e, and then, one out later, a bomb over the left-field fence by leadoff hitter Daisy Taloa.

The floodgates opened in the fourth. White led off the inning with a homer to left for a 3-0 advantage. One out later, pitcher Mikayla Ulibarri cranked one out for a 4-0 lead. Josie Vaenuku’s blast made it 7-0 and brought on a new Bountiful pitcher. No matter. A walk, a hit batter, and a run-scoring single later, and White was up again. Another moonshot made it 11-0 and had the Panthers dancing in the dugout.

While the Braves put up a three-spot in the bottom half, West seemed determined to get this game over via the 10-run mercy rule in the fifth, and made it happen. Two more pitching changes by Bountiful couldn’t stem the onslaught, as Su’eSu’e, Huntyr Ava and White all went deep.

Ulibarri finished things off in the bottom half, capping off a senior season that saw her pitch every game for the Panthers. She said her teammates’ power display allowed her to breathe a little easier as the game went on.

“It’s way nice,” she said. “Before we hit all those home runs, it was kinda stressful, because they were catching up. But now — it didn’t feel like anything.”

No, by that point, all the Panthers were feeling was the joy of being state champs.

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