TUCSON — Rudy Valenzuela and the seniors of the Vista Grande softball team didn’t get the storybook ending they hoped for, but there is no reason they should hang their heads.

“This is a group of kids that are great,” said Valenzuela, the Spartans coach. “They’re awesome, they have a good chemistry. They play together very, very well. It’s a great chemistry, they’re lovable, they’re a good bunch of kids. I could go on and on, it’s tough for me to say something right now. They’re great, I love them all.”

Regardless of the 5-4 loss in the 4A state championship game to Tucson Salpointe Catholic on Monday at Hillenbrand Stadium, this season was historic for the Spartans.

With an 18-2 record, the Spartans claimed the No. 2 seed in the tournament, the highest they have ever been ranked. They also claimed their first region title after sweeping the 4A Black Canyon with an 8-0 mark.

“I think we really just deserved where we got to,” second baseman Amyah Boostedt said. “I enjoyed playing with all of my teammates. I’m happy with the season. I hope [people] remember that we always played with a lot of heart this season and we never say die and played all the way to the end.”

Six Spartans made the all-region first team and other region honors included Valenzuela as Coach of the Year. Shortstop Selena Perez was named Defensive Player of the Year and pitcher Alyssa Tinnin was Player of the Year.

Monday was the final game of Valenzuela’s head coaching career as he is officially retired. He said he may come back in an assistant role.

“I hate to leave, but it’s time for me to hang it up and let somebody else take the helm,” he said.

It was also the final game for seniors Brooklyn Flores, Jazzy Joaquin, Rheayln Encinas, Bri Jorgensen and Boostedt.

“The seniors did amazing,” first baseman Adecelli Archuleta said. “They showed out. We showed out big time, and we did it for ourselves and coach Rudy. We deserved every bit of it, there’s no going back.”

Vista Grande’s never-say-die attitude proved that this team deserved to be in the championship game despite the many naysayers.

“It was a heck of a season,” Valenzuela said. “The girls fought, and they battled, we never gave up. I thought the girls battled till the end. We did a good job; it was just not what we wanted. The season was great, it was outstanding. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. We put a scare into Salpointe.”

The Spartans entered the final inning down 5-1, and given their epic walk-off win in the semifinals against Oro Valley Canyon del Oro, Vista Grande fans were ready for another magical moment.

Illeana Cosillos led off with a single to center and then scored on a Jorgensen double. Jorgensen was 2 for 3 with two RBIs.

Archuleta was 0 for 2 in the game and on the eighth pitch of her at bat, she sent a laser over the left-field fence to bring the Spartans within one run of tying the game.

“There’s nothing really about it,” Archuleta said. “I just felt that I needed to do something for the team, and I just needed to give it my all. I felt it off my bat when I hit it, so I knew it was over. It was an outside pitch; it was deep, and I caught it late actually. I was super hyped. I was like let’s go get it, this is ours. I knew they were counting on me and I couldn’t let them down.”

Valenzuela added everyone was jumping up and down in the dugout after Archuleta’s home run, including himself.

“I was hoping that we had another runner on base, that way we could have at least tied the score, but it is what it is,” he said. “The dugout, they were just enjoying it, ecstatic, thinking it might be another comeback. I was hoping that it would be, but it is what it is. The girls are outstanding ballplayers.”

Joaquin and Flores followed with two quick outs, as Ashlyn Dela Cruz stepped up to the plate.

Vista Grande was so close to bringing up the heart of its lineup, including Selena Perez, who went 2 for 3.

But after hitting three foul balls and taking two balls, Dela Cruz went down swinging as the No. 1 Lancers (24-0) claimed their third championship in four years, as last season was ultimately canceled due to COVID-19.