Over the course of December, the Optic will be revealing the 2021 sports superlatives. We will be recognizing the top male athlete, female athlete, male newcomer, female newcomer, coach of the year, team of the year and game of the year. After a pandemic pause starting in March 2020 sports came back in full force in New Mexico and we had some great athletes, teams, coaches and games to choose from in 2021. None of these choices were easy, but we had to make a choice in every category. We will be recognizing the game of the year in Las Vegas first, and that game was the 2021 3A state softball semifinal between West Las Vegas and Robertson.
Any time the Dons and the Cardinals meet in the playoffs it’s a big deal. This one felt even a little more special. It was the first postseason matchup between the two schools since the state returned to high school sports, and the game itself did not disappoint. Robertson was 17-0 and dominant, scoring double digit runs in all but three contests during the season, winning their contests by an average of over 12 runs per game. They had even swept the Lady Dons during the regular season, winning all three contests by a combined score of 37-18. West Las Vegas had a great season in their own right, finishing second in District 2-3A and finding themselves as the third seed in the 3A state playoffs with an experienced roster featuring seniors Mickey Montoya, Chrislen Archuleta and Jennifer Sanchez, as well as junior Maddie Griego. In the end that experience might have been what swung this semifinal contest.
This game was different from any that was played in the regular season, not just because of the stakes, but because of the crowd. This game had the largest crowd of any game in any sport in Vegas to that point since we restarted sports. Robertson was dominant, rarely challenged and extremely young heading into the postseason with ten players being either eighth graders, freshmen or sophomores, including all of their top eight hitters in terms of batting average. They had not faced much, if any, adversity over the course of the season, and on that day, June 23, they finally did. The game could not have started much better for the Cardinals, scoring three runs in the bottom of the second thanks to consecutive singles by eighth graders Taylor Quintana and Alexis Pacheco as well as sophomore Arianna Archuleta. With a 3-0 lead early, having swept the Lady Dons during the regular season it looked as if the Cardinals were going to continue their winning streak and advance to the state championship game.
A funny thing happened after that. West Las Vegas pitcher Jennifer Sanchez locked in on the mound and at the plate. Sanchez allowed just one run the rest of the game on the mound, going the full seven innings, but her biggest contribution of the game might have come at the plate. Immediately following the Cardinals three-run inning Sanchez launched a ball into left field in the top of the third over the fence for a home run. That solo shot seemed to allow the Lady Dons to settle in and start to battle back against their archrivals.
The big inning came for the Lady Dons in the top of the fifth. Still trailing 3-1, they needed a big hit, something to get them going. With two runners on it was senior first baseman Mickey Montoya who stepped up to the plate, lining one into the outfield, driving in two runs to tie the game. Shortly thereafter Montoya came around to score herself, giving the Dons a 4-3 lead, one they would never relinquish. The Lady Dons ended up scoring four runs that inning, taking a 5-3 lead, just nine outs away from a state championship berth. Sanchez, who had lost twice to the Cardinals during the regular season, shut them down. When she was not getting strikeouts or easy pop ups, it was junior shortstop Maddie Griego making spectacular plays at shortstop to keep Cardinal hitters off the bases and runners from scoring. Many in attendance believe it was her defense that won West Las Vegas game. It certainly killed any momentum the Cardinals could muster.
The Lady Dons tacked on one more run in the top of the sixth to make it 6-3 and after a Cardinal home run in the bottom of the seventh made it 6-4, a simple ground ball out gave the Lady Dons the win over their archrival and a spot in the state championship game.
There were several great games in Vegas this year. The Cardinals and Dons boys basketball game on April 23 where the Cardinals won in overtime stands out, as well as the ‘Vegas Bowl’ when the Cardinals won 40-27 in a shootout. This game, though, felt like the biggest of them all, with it being a semifinal, and the best. Trailing 3-0 to a team that beat you three times during the regular season on their home field, it would have been easy for the Lady Dons to mail it in. They did not, they battled back, took the lead, and won the game of the year for Las Vegas in 2021.