Lindsey Hilts' two-out single in the bottom of the seventh inning drove in Jasmine Lamontagne on Sunday, and the North Carolina Challengers defeated Long Island (N.Y.) Bandits-Smith 5-4 to become national champions for the first time.
The 16U team from the Triangle-based girls fast-pitch softball organization won the 16-and-under PONY National Championship Tournament on Sunday at Thomas Brooks Park in Cary.
The championship was the Challengers' first since the organization was established in 1994, according to coach Adam Renzi. The Challengers field teams in age groups ranging from 10U through 18U each season.
Five other teams were crowned champions at the tournament. They are:
- The Richmond (Va.) Rampage, a 5-2 winner against the Quebec Rebelles Performance QC in the 18-and-under division.
- The Charlotte Blaze, winners of the 14U division over the West Pines (Fla.) Diamond Dusters.
- The Sting Fastpitch 12U Gold, a Pennsylvania team that took the 12U title over the West Jersey Witches 98 of New Jersey.
- The Riptides (Va.) 2000, winners over the Loudoun (Va.) Storms in the 10U division.
As she had through all five days of 16U competition - which involved 40 teams from 17 states, Renzi said - star pitcher Lauren Marbrey kept the Challengers in position to win. Marbrey gave up only three earned runs over 21 innings on the final day.
During a searing five-day run that saw temperatures soar to 105 degrees, the tournament host Challengers stayed hot themselves, using " a lot of heart and dedication," Renzi said, in fighting back from deficits throughout the tournament.
"We've had our ups and downs," Renzi said in an interview late Sunday. "It was not the most talented team that I've been around, but for whatever reason, ... they never seem to get down on themselves. (When they get behind), they just keep coming back."
Renzi said the Challengers, the tournament hosts, did not get many hits, but when they did "they really made them count." They were timely hits, too, with two-out hits and two-run hits.
That determination at the plate stood out in the championship game. With Lamontagne on base, Lauren Clifford made a sacrifice bunt to advance the runner, and a two-out single from Hilts then scored Lamontagne from second to win the game. Once Lamontagne crossed the plate for yet another comeback win, the celebration was on.
"I've never been around a team that was able to come back like that," Renzi said. "I've been at this for 15 years.
"Girls teams can get down easily. But this team was a lot different. They were able to pick each other up. That's what made this so unique. The coaches really didn't have to say anything.
"The mental skills shined in the tournament, and that's why they were able to win it."
- Teri Boggess
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