By TIM GAYLE
After a monumental seventh-inning collapse in the first game, the Montgomery-based Knockout Divas picked themselves up and rebounded with a victory to clinch the USA 10-under Nationals at Lagoon Park Softball Complex on Saturday afternoon.
In doing so, they became the first local team in five girls’ fast pitch nationals held at Lagoon Park to capture the tournament championship.
“That’s big,” Divas manager Charlie Dees said. “One, to be the host team; two, that we just got through playing in the USSSA World Series and our girls are tired but we came out here and stepped it up. That’s something you can’t take away ever. It’s in the history books.”
The Divas competed in the USSSA World Series in Gulf Shores last week and captured fifth place in the Class B tournament but stepping into the 15-team Class A tournament at Lagoon Park was another matter. The pitchers are more dominant at the Class A level and the defense is stronger.
Dees’ team found that out the hard way when seven errors opened the door for six unearned runs as the Ohio Stingrays rallied for seven runs in the bottom of the seventh to pull out a 10-9 victory and force a second and deciding game in the double-elimination tournament.
The Ohio Stingrays, coached by Chris Back, a co-director of the 10-team organization based in the Columbus suburb of Pickerington, Ohio, took a 1-0 lead in the second game but those two innings were the only time in 15 innings on Saturday that the Stingrays led.
“These are the two best teams in the tournament,” Dees said. “They fought hard, they had to come out of the loser’s bracket. We just couldn’t capitalize in the first game to put it away but we’ve been in these situations before. We’ve had to fight out of the loser’s bracket or fight after getting beat in Game 1. It just shows the type of girls we have, being 10 and 11 years old and what they can do, especially in 95 and 100-degree weather. They made the plays when they had to, hit the ball when they had to, pitchers made the pitches when they had to. It just fell our way this time.”
It started with pitching. Dees alternated his niece, Brely Dees, and Jolie Albertson of Niceville, Fla., throughout the two games, pitching the harder-throwing Albertson in the first four innings of the first game and the last four innings of the second game.
“Most of your big Class A teams don’t make the mistakes that some of the teams we face do or we did today,” Dees said. “They’ve got some really good pitching. But our pitchers stepped up. It was hot and I had to go back and forth. When one of them got tired, I had to have the other one step up and she stepped up.”
While there was no most valuable player for the tournament, the obvious choice would have been Divas second baseman Kam Hammock. The Phenix City native was flawless in the field, turning in big play after big play. Batting ninth in the first game and seventh in the second, she went 2 for 3 and scored two runs in the first game and 2 for 4 with three RBIs in the second game, along with a pair of sparkling defensive plays while accounting for 17 outs (10 assists and seven putouts) in the 15 innings.
“She went off,” Dees said. “That’s the best game she’s had since she been with me the last three years. She came to show.”
In the first game, the Divas built a 9-3 lead with a three-run double by Peyton Dees in the fourth and Celeste Ragsdale’s two-run triple over everyone’s head in the sixth. Dees went 2 for 5 in both games and drove in four runs in the first game. Ragsdale was even better, going 2-for 3 with three RBIs in the first game and scoring four times in the second game.
“She knows how to do that,” Dees said. “Sometimes she doesn’t put it all together but she put it together when we needed it.”
The Stingrays rallied with seven runs on seven hits in the seventh inning of the first game, scoring on a wild pitch to cap an astonishing rally that forced a second game. They weren’t as lucky in the second game, scoring a pair of runs in another wild finish to force extra innings, but coming up with just one run in the eighth.
The Divas also drove in the runner from second that was placed on base via international rules, but got another when Ragsdale, who had singled in the run, scored from third on a popup to second by Hammock for what proved to be the game-winning run.
It was the perfect finish for the Knockout Divas, who will move up to 12U next season.