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Montezuma-Cortez will play No. 5 La Junta at state softball tournament

Panthers pitcher Taiah Wilson winds up on the mound in this file photo. The senior led the team this season in batting average, hits and RBIs.
Panthers shut out Arvada in regional tournament

DENVER – The Panthers softball program has made a trip to the 3A State Tournament into an annual tradition.

For the third time in four years, the Montezuma-Cortez High School Panthers will load up the bus and head to Aurora to test themselves in the 16-team field, with hopes ofr a deep run. The Panthers also made the tournament in 2018 and 2019, where they bowed out in the opening round on both occasions.

For head coach Anthony “Hippo” Frost and collection of six seniors, the Panthers have visions of taking the next step against some of the best teams from the Centennial State.

The Panthers enter the tournament as the No. 12 seed and will face No. 5 La Junta in the opening round at 10 a.m. Friday at the Aurora Sports Complex. The winner will face the winner of Sterling, who knocked the Panthers out the tournament in 2019, and Meeker, with whom the Panthers shared this year’s 3A Western Slope League title.

M-CHS made short work of its regional semifinal opponent, Arvada, to ensure themselves another state trip. The Panthers scored 13 runs in the bottom of the first inning, added four in the second, while the defense faced the minimum Bulldog batters, which allowed the contest to be shortened by mercy rule, with the Panthers on top, 17-0.

In the regional championship game, the Panthers ran into state tournament No. 6 seed Lamar. After a slow start saw the regional hosts score five runs in the first inning, the Panthers settled in defensively. However, Lamar pitching and defense limited the Panthers to a lone run late in the contest, and M-CHS fell by a final of 7-1.

M-CHS sports an 18-6 record heading into their meeting with the Tigers, and an offense that has scored an average of over 10 runs per contest. Senior Taiah Wilson has led the way in several offensive categories, including batting average, hits and RBIs.

Riley Hickman (No. 6) congratulates Koral Jackson after Jackson turned a double into a home run in this file photo. The Panthers on Saturday defeated Arvada High School to advance to the Colorado state tournament. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)

Junior Lizzie Likes, who has split time in the pitching circle this season with Wilson, has enjoyed tremendous success at the plate as well, bashing 15 extra base hits this season. Classmate Rylee Hickman leads the team in runs scored, thanks in part to her ability to get on base at a .500 clip.

Senior Allie Kibel has been a nuisance on the base paths with 29 steals, while on the defensive side, seniors Hailey Veach and Brianna Comisky have been reliable for the Panthers.

Add to the mix the emergence of sophomore Kaycee Tom, along with freshmen Emily Carver and Navaeh Istenes, and the Panthers have developed a balanced lineup that can beat teams from top to bottom of the order.

La Junta capped off a 19-5 season with a regional title, picking up victories over Gunnison and Academy. The Tigers wrapped up a perfect 3A Tri Peaks League slate and, much like the Panthers, boast a prolific lineup. Juniors Madison Wiley and Alizeh Fraizer combined for 70 hits and over 50 RBIs, and represent a fearsome duo for M-CHS to contend with. Wiley also is likely to get the ball in the circle, as she has collected a 15-5 record with a 4.65 ERA.

The meeting between the Panthers and Tigers will be the first occasion that they have met on the softball diamond since at least 2009. Their opening round matchup, along with the quarterfinal games will be played on Friday, with the semifinals and state title game to be contested the following day at the Aurora Sports Complex.

A police and fire department escort on Main Avenue in Cortez is scheduled for Panthers at 9 a.m. Thursday.