CASA GRANDE — Sitting at the edge of his dugout where he has seen his Spartans win so many games, Rudy Valenzuela was two outs away from his coaching career coming to an end.

Vista Grande was down 5-3 to Oro Valley Canyon Del Oro in the bottom of the seventh in the 4A conference semifinals. One of the Spartans’ best hitters, Amyah Boostedt, had just grounded out. The tension among the home fans who have had title hopes all year was rolling through the field like a monsoon.

Then Selena Perez sprinted out an infield single. Hope. The very next pitch, birthday girl Alyssa Tinnin, who struggled as much in the circle as she had all season, gave herself the best gift she could ask for: a double off the center field wall to bring her team within one. The very next pitch, Illeana Cosillos got a double of her own to tie the game.

Up to the plate came Bri Jorgensen, one of the Spartans’ illustrious seniors who had just watched her teammates build their comeback off of aggressive hitting. She knew what she had to do.

“I was just thinking to swing down, that I had to do this for the team,” Jorgensen said.

She took the first pitch she saw and hit the ball into center field. By the time she turned around, Cosillos had crossed home plate. They had done it. They stared defeat in the eye, told it to wait for another day, and they will be playing for the first state championship in the school’s history.

“That was the highlight of my career,” said Valenzuela, who last week announced he will be retiring at the end of the season. “One of my sayings I started way back 10 years ago was that we never say die. We battle to the end.”

And what a battle it was. Valenzuela said CDO has given him a good game ever since he was a coach at Casa Grande Union. After the game, Tinnin gave credit to the Dorados’ coaching staff for why it’s always a challenge to face them. That had been true on April 29 when Vista barely escaped with a 5-4 victory, but nothing could prepare them for the thrills of Thursday night.

The Spartans took the lead on three separate occasions during the game, but could never shake the Dorados off. In the first inning, Tinnin and Cosillos both had RBI singles to give Vista an early lead. CDO’s Sydnee Wendel drove in one the next frame to cut the lead in half, then in the fourth inning Naya Campos smoked the ball over the center field wall to tie it up.

With two outs in the bottom of the fourth and Adecelli Archuleta on first base, the Dorados made a costly error that allowed Boostedt to get up to the plate, and she took advantage of the opportunity by roping the ball down the right field line. Archuleta scored to retake the lead at 3-2.

Then came the fifth inning, where Tinnin struggled with a tight strike zone and a Dorado lineup that was ready to pounce on every hittable ball. The first five CDO hitters reached base, giving them their first lead of the game. Still, the bases were loaded with nobody out, and Tinnin reached for what she had left and got out of the inning only allowing one more run and kept the score at 5-3.

“She’s been pitching for many, many years,” Valenzuela said. “She knew what she had to do, and she’s not the type of girl who’s going to give up.”

Vista’s offense failed to get going in either the fifth or sixth inning, and it appeared the the Dorados had wrested control of the game from the home team. Then, a moment of magic. Leading off the top of the seventh, Monica Clark hit a line drive to center field, where senior Brooklyn Flores was running like her life depended on it. She flew through the air and right before the ball was about to hit the ground and perhaps start another CDO rally, her glove got just under it. Suddenly, her teammates had a jolt in their steps.

“These are a bunch of tough girls who want to play ball. They’ve got it in their hearts,” Valenzuela said. “It’s built within them.”

That spirit seemed to carry over to the bottom of the frame, when those four hits in just as many pitches made history for the Spartans. They get one more game, the one they’ve wanted for so long. It will come Monday beginning at 2 p.m. against Tucson Salpointe Catholic, an undefeated team that beat Vista 4-0 on April 27 in a game the Spartans feel they could have won.

The championship will be played at Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium at the University of Arizona in Tucson, a field where so many legends of softball have played before.

And while she might not yet have the fame of a Jennie Finch or Nancy Evans, Tinnin said she is ready to step in that circle and write an ending to this story that will live on in Casa Grande for many years to come. All year, the junior ace has been dedicating every win to the seniors who have meant so much to her. Now, she is also doing it for her coach, who’s on one last epic ride.

“It’s like I just got off a sugar rush,” Tinnin said after celebrating with her teammates. “I don’t even know, it’s like a fever dream I guess, because I remember telling the girls at the beginning of the year that we had to go to the championship. I mean, what else is there to do?”

After Bri Jorgensen got a base hit to drive in the game-winning run on May 13, 2021, the Vista Grande Spartans celebrated their berth in the 4A conference championship game.