Postseason to remember for Little League softball teams
They hit the ball hard. The pitchers struck out opposing batters, the catchers helped control the game, the fielders made routine plays with regularity.
Outside of uniform colors, there were only occasional differences between teams at the California Little League Division II Championships for softball.
What made the biggest difference? Once the games ended, the lights were turned off, the teams exited the field, everyone piled into parents' and relatives' cars and headed for home. Everyone lived somewhere within two hours of the ballparks in West Sacramento and Martinez, the sites of the 9andndash;10 and 11andndash;12 softball tournaments.
Everyone, that is, except the girls of Del Norte Little League. They went back to strange beds in motels and friends' houses, keeping their seasons alive for another night.
Rachel Higgins experienced that rare but all-important moment in athletic competition: Making the game-winning play.
Higgins' shoestring catch in the outfield against Redwood Empire Little League preserved a 6-4 win for the Del Norte 11andndash;12 All-Stars and clinched the California Little League District 26 championship in Fortuna on July 3.
"I thought I was going to drop it," Higgins said.
The All-Stars had not lost a single game in Fortuna, and confidence was riding high entering the Division II Tournament.
However, Del Norte ran into stiff competition in Martinez and struggled with the three-digit temperatures. Gilroy Little League hammered the 11andndash;12 All-Stars in the first game on July 9, winning 17-1 in five innings. Del Norte took North Natomas Little League of Sacramento to the wire in the losers bracket, but lost 7-6 in seven innings on July 11.
Off the field, the 11andndash;12 All-Stars beat the heat with a visit to a water park. On July 10, parents and kids alike gathered outside of the de facto team hotel, the Holiday Inn Express in Martinez. The parents grilled food at the outdoor barbecue stations while team members swam in the pool and bonded.
If the District 26 champions were disappointed with the end of their postseason run, it never showed in Martinez.
"The team was exceptional," says Terri Higgins, Rachel's mother. "No one thought they were better than the others. All of the girls were really, really close."
Del Norte 9andndash;10 All-Stars head coach Mark Horner and assistant coaches John Horner and Jennifer Douglas laid down some ground rules at the start:
No pool swimming after 7 p.m. Mandatory bedtime at 10 p.m. No pool swimming on days with 6 p.m. games.
In the Del Norte 9andndash;10 All-Stars' dugout, parents prepared towels cooled with ice to put on the girls' heads. Pounds and pounds of fruit, along with water and beverages fortified with electrolytes, were consumed.
Players were encouraged to sit in the dugout, in the shade, rather than stand up and cheer for their teammates.
"We were all pretty hot out there," All-Star Ayliah Rafalowski says.
Many girls complained of dizziness in the triple-digit heat. Two came close to passing out during games, according to Douglas.
In spite of all this, the girls of Del Norte kept their heads - and kept winning.
The 9andndash;10 All-Stars defeated Antioch Little League on July 7 and American Canyon Little League July 8. After a day off, Del Norte matched up against Chico Little League on July 10 - and beat them, too.
"It was amazing how far they took it," says Tony Douglas, father of 9andndash;10 All-Star Allison Douglas. "The farther they went (into the tournament), it was more and more surreal. I would watch some of the other games (of Del Norte's competition) and think, 'We have our challenge before us on this next team.'"
The longer Del Norte kept winning, the longer the parents and kids needed to stay in West Sacramento. Some parents had to return to Crescent City due to work and other conflicts. Tony Douglas, a self-employed refrigeration maintenance technician, made the seven-hour drive one-way on the team's off-day to attend to his clients.
Helping hands were with the team every step of the way. The older sister of All-Star Laycee Coopman welcomed team members into her home in Roseville. Back in Crescent City, benefactors chipped in money and other support through Mark Horner and the Del Norte parents as needed.
In between, the team organized group meals, visits to a water park and special instruction at a Sacramento-area batting cage.
"I don't know who had more fun, the adults or the kids," says Sean Fernandez, father of 9andndash;10 All-Star McKenzie Fernandez.
On July 12, Del Norte experienced its biggest setback to date, allowing seven runs in the fifth inning of a 12-1 loss to Gilroy Little League. The temperature at game time was 108 degrees, the hottest day yet.
"After the game, the girls were bawling," Jennifer Douglas says. "But they came right out of it in the next game."
In a do-or-die contest against Peach Bowl Little League of Yuba City on July 14, Shelby Horner's walk-off RBI single kept Del Norte alive. The 10-9, seven-inning victory put the 9andndash;10 All-Stars in a rematch with Gilroy the next day for the championship.
Del Norte took a 3-2 lead but allowed three runs in both the fifth and sixth innings. With the 8-3 loss, the 9andndash;10 All-Stars were officially the second-place team. After nine days of intense competition, the postseason was over.
"Gilroy said they were proud of us," Rafalowski says. "They thought we were awesome, and we gave them compliments back."
"How did you make it this far?"
"I Googled Crescent City," the head coach of the Gilroy Little League All-Stars told Jennifer Douglas before playing Del Norte. "You guys only have 7,000, 8,000 people there. How did you make it this far?"
The 9-10 All-Stars arrived in West Sacramento with little fanfare and less name recognition. As the tournament progressed, parents say, the girls from Del Norte County began receiving a warmer reception in recognition of their on-field play and the journey they made to get to the games.
"They put Del Norte on the map," Sean Fernandez says.
For the individual players, the postseason was an experience to remember on the field and off.
Allison Douglas was the team's second pitcher, behind Tamesha Jordan, given the responsibility despite not having pitched in the Little League regular season. She went 1-1 in the Division II tournament, gaining confidence in her abilities.
"Mark and John are great guys," Douglas says. "I respect them for helping me and giving me the opportunity to pitch. I was honored. I'm proud to show them I could."
Rafalowski stayed with her grandparents in the suburb of Citrus Heights for the duration of the tournament and reconnected with aunts, uncles and cousins. According to her mother, Veronica, at least 11 members of the family made it out for every one of Ayliah's games.
She also earned important braggingrights over her brother, Johnnie - a Del Norte Little League baseball 11-12 All-Star - due to her and her team's success.
"My uncle kept rubbing it in that I was his favorite," Ayliah Rafalowski says, laughing. "My brother was very excited for me."
Reach Robert Husseman at firstname.lastname@example.org .