Jul. 26—Correction appended
ALBUQUERQUE — It was a small step for Santa Fe Little League.
Coach Maria Cedillo hopes a great leap for Northern New Mexico softball comes from it.
For three innings Monday morning, the Santa Fe All-Stars could say they were East Texas champion Columbus Little League's equals in the championship game of the Junior Softball Southwest Region Tournament at Roadrunner Little League.
Reality, though, came crashing down hard in the fourth inning. Columbus' lineup depth revealed itself in the span of 12 hitters and eight runs, and Santa Fe had no answer for it. The resulting 10-0 win gave Columbus its second straight regional title and a spot in the Little League World Series that begins Aug. 1 in Kirkland, Wash.
The East Texas celebration began when Molly Garcia slid head-first into home plate on Santa Fe pitcher Leah Gutierrez's wild pitch in the bottom of the fifth to invoke the 10-run mercy rule.
The fast finish made Columbus' slow start a secondary plot to its incendiary finish. Thirteen of its last 16 batters reached base, with all of the team's runs coming in that span.
It was more like the team that scored 52 runs during its three wins heading into Monday's game.
"We had a few games during the state tournament where we started slow," Columbus head coach John Henry Post said. "We talked about starting fast on the way up to [Albuquerque], and we did. So, this wasn't totally out of the ordinary, but we've been in a situation like that before."
But for three innings, SFLL had its faithful fans believing in the fairy tale that a plucky group of Northern New Mexico's best 13- to 15-year-olds could match up against one of the best clubs in the nation — one that finished runner-up nationally in 2019.
"We did good; we just ran out of gas," said Cedillo, the head coach of the Santa Fe All-Stars.
Nadia Cedillo, the team star and Little League West Region Home Run Derby champion, retired the Columbus lineup in order through the first three frames. Meanwhile, Santa Fe collected two hits and even threatened to take an early lead in the top of the fourth.
Mikiaela Guillen had a double and Mariella Ruiz coaxed a walk out of Columbus starter Mia Post with two outs in the inning, but Gutierrez grounded out to first base to quell the threat.
When Santa Fe's ace stepped on the pitching rubber for the fourth, though, everything changed in one swing of the bat.
When K.J. Foster lined a single to left field, it was a harbinger of things to come. Coach Post said the younger Cedillo, who is Maria's daughter, did a good job putting spin on her pitches that induced ground balls and weak popups.
Mia Post, the coach's daughter and starting pitcher, said the team just needed to see her pitches to get their timing down.
"I wouldn't say we were off," Mia Post said. "We just needed to get the adjustments down. We were a little late."
But once the top of the lineup got its second look at Nadia Cedillo, the outcome was vastly different. Columbus collected three hits and had a bit batter sandwiched around a popup.
"I just knew at that point, they were hitting off of me," Nadia Cedillo said.
When Allie Cranek laced a bases-loaded single to center field that a diving Santa Fe's Hannah Martinez let slip by her, the resulting three runs that created a 4-1 lead sent a jolt through both dugouts.
Columbus was energized by Cranek's hit. Santa Fe was numbed by it.
"That last pitch was just right down the middle of the plate," Cranek said. "It was nice."
Nadia Cedillo, who pitched 112/3 innings Sunday and Monday, surrendered the pitching circle to Guillen. The pitching change did little to stop the Columbus onslaught.
Three hits, two errors and four more runs ensued and the margin was 8-0 when Gutierrez stepped in to get the third out. Coach Cedillo said the errors compounded the rally.
"They hit so much harder when they take control," she said. "And our infield was taking bullets. That's why we bobbled the ball."
While the dream of the team's first World Series berth vanished, coach Cedillo said she hopes Santa Fe's performance will light a spark in the community for a sport that is an afterthought after basketball and volleyball.
The proof was in a regular season in which District 1, which includes Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Pojoaque Valley and Española Valley little leagues, collectively had just two teams in Junior Softball. The teams had to play each other several times as well travel to Las Vegas, N.M., to get the required 12 regular-season games required to qualify for postseason play.
Coach Cedillo said having a team achieve the level of success like hers did this year could be a driving force in keeping players interested as they get older. Many younger players in the area attended games over the weekend, and Maria Cedillo hopes they will be emboldened to carry on Junior Softball team's legacy.
"We didn't get here by taking the easy road," coach Cedillo said. "We've been battling through. So, we're gonna go through the trenches with [the younger players] and help them elevate their game. That's how you make a change."
If that happens, Santa Fe Little League might be able to compete against peer leagues like Columbus, which repeated as Southwest regional champions. It won the tournament in 2019, but the coronavirus pandemic eliminated regional and national play in 2020 and 2021.
"That's been our goal — to get to Kirkland," coach Post said. "We've been waiting for the opportunity."
Whether Santa Fe Little League gets the same opportunity depends largely on how it builds upon the momentum this team create.
But Monday was a big step.
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the last name of Columbus hitter Allie Cranek.