The Top Club National wrapped up Saturday after a day of great softball featuring many of the elite club teams nationwide coming into the Oklahoma City area from 16 states.
How good were the games on Championship Sunday? All three of the finals were one-run games and two of the three
The Final 4 at the age divisions were determined as the 10 am games were all IF games. At noon and 2 pm the semi’s were held and the championships at 18U, 16U and 14U were held at Firelake Ball Fields in Shawnee, Oklahoma at 4:45 pm.
As we’ve noted this week, the field of 109 teams includes 21 who were ranked in the Extra Elite Eighty Club Rankings at the 18U division, 19 teams at 16U and 15 in 14U of the 109 participaing teams.
Here are my thoughts of how the championship day went along with the Tournament MVPs for each age group.
--- Brentt Eads, Extra Inning Softball
18U Championship: Athletics – Mercado/Smith 1, Georgia Impact - Lewis 0
Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?
Last summer, the PGF 18U National Championship went down to the wire between the A’s – Mercado/Smith and Georgia Impact – Lewis juggernauts and the final score was 1-0 on a late inning score for Dave Mercado’s team.
On Sunday, those two teams met again and the final once again was a nail-biter with great pitching keeping two strong offenses at bay until Quincee Lilio, the Oklahoma-committed infielder ranked #5 in the 2021 Extra Elite 100, stroked an opposite field single in the eighth inning to provide the only run of the game.
And a second straight title for the Athletics at Top Club National after winning it last year as well. The Athletics, ranked #1 in our Extra Elite Eighty 18U Preseason Rankings topped the #3 ranked Georgia Impact – Lewis 1-0 in what has become a great rivalry.
“Going into it I knew what to do,” Lilio said after the win. “I was calm and confident in myself and I knew what to do.”
She took the riseball on the outside part of the play and admitted she felt like she was just doing what comes naturally.
“It felt unreal,” she explained, “like it was just another game, but everyone started celebrating!”
“Q,” as she’s known, as capped off a great week for the Athletics which won two of the three titles and came close to a sweep as the 16U Athletics – Mercado/Greg team made the Final Four and was knocked by Mojo - Fisher 4-0.
One major difference last year from the PGF win to Sunday’s Top Club National title was who was in the circle for the A’s.
With two outstanding 2020 pitchers in Allison Royalty (ASU signee) and Ryleigh White (Texas), Coach Mercado has the luxury of a four-deep staff, but the one who got the hot hand and was fantastic all week was 2021 Oregon commit Stevie Hansen, who got better and better as the week went on and the A’s were more than happy to continue with the hot hand… or arm.
“At the beginning I wasn’t sure how it was going to go,” Hansen confessed, “as we have some great pitching with Allison and Ryleigh and I was just hoping to see the field. I was happy I got to come in!”
Firmly established as one of the top organizations in the travel softball, the Athletics are deep and talented, but Assistant Coach Mark Smith revealed the true secret to the team’s great success recently.
“They’re a team,” he said of the players. “You ask any of them who contribute, they’ll talk about others and that’s what we preach—being a team. They buy in every year, it’s more important than any individual, it’s all about the team and that’s what makes them special.”
Pitcher Stevie Hansen (Athletics – Mercado/Smith)
16U Championship: Hotshots Premier – Nelson 2, Mojo - Fisher 1
You have to give it to Mojo – Fisher pitcher Keagan Rothrock, who in the 24 hours before Championship Sunday had led the #1-ranked team in the Extra Elite Eighty 16U Pre-Summer Rankings to wins over the #2 Birmingham Thundebolts – Roberson and #3 Athletics – Mercado/Greg teams.
But the third top-five team she faced, the #5 ranked Hotshots Premier – Nelson team, was finally able to break through against Rothrock, who looked fantastic all week and combined for two no-hitters.
With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the 7th, middle infielder Madelyn Lopez, ranked #68 in the 2022 Extra Elite 100, lined a single up the middle to plate the game-winner and the Hotshots celebrated a big emotional win.
“I was nervous, obviously” Lopez admitted as she battled a 2-and-2 count against Rothrock, “but I my team had my back and I knew I had to get up there up there with confidence and do what I had been doing all week.”
Here's video of the game-winning hit:
Lopez hit .577 for the week and played great defense as did the entire team including third baseman Kennedy Powell, a UCLA commit who also batted .577 for the week and is a Top 15 player in the 2022 Extra Elite 100.
In the circle, Ava Brown was fantastic all week finishing with a 5-0 record and a 0.52 ERA while also hitting .435. In 27.1 innings at Top Club National she only gave up 14 hits against many of the top teams in the country.
With tears streaming down her face after the title win, Brown, a Top 25 player in the 2023 Extra Elite 100, explained why this championship meant so much to her.
“This was a big deal for me because, me personally, I’ve never really gotten the big (spot)light in a championship game like that and I knew that this was going to be a really good team (Mojo) and competition. I knew it was going to be a big deal to my team and I had to have them (to get the title).”
As I interviewed Lopez and Brown after the game, Coach Nathan Nelson also showed how important the win was for him and the organization which had to go through a gauntlet of tough teams as their wins included #9 Mojo 2021, #2 Thunderbolts, #10 Texas Glory - Naudin and, of course, #1 Mojo - Fisher.
“Our team motto is ‘Rise of a Champion,’” Coach Nelson began, pausing as he became emotional and hugged Brown and Lopez. “The parents bought in—it started with the parents from Day 1 when we assembled this team—and here we are today in our first national event walking away successful. It’s pretty awesome!”
“It’s a feeling I’ll never forget!” added Lopez.
Pitcher Ava Brown (Hotshots Premier - Nelson)
14U Championship: Athletics Mercado 2023 6, Texas Bombers – Jones 5
Unlike the other games in the older division, the 14U game had plenty of offense, particularly by outfielder Karis Ford of Athletics Mercado 2023. Alss she did was knock in four runs as the A’s got to a big lead early.
Steve Jones’ Bombers team wouldn’t quit, though, and got the score within a run before the A’s were able to close the door and take another title for Dave Mercado’s organization.
Earlier in the week, Assistant Coach Rick Hovermale worried that the A’s weren’t clicking like they could because of a lack of game play, especially compared to non-California teams across the nation.
He told me that if the bats would come around, this team had the talent to win it all and that “we came all this way to win.”
Thursday, the entire offense seemed to light up and the coach knew then the momentum was on the A’s side.
“When these girls get rolling, it’s hard to stop them,” Coach Hovermale explained. “It can be one through nine in the line-up and we have seven on the bench we can plug in. They picked each other up and got better and better, they saw the ball better and they had to because we faced really good pitching, the Iowa Premier and Bombers pitchers were phenomenal.”
Speaking of which, the A’s benefitted by a one-two punch of Cambria Salmon and Jiselle Hernandez who held down the fort until the bats got revved up.
“They pitched their butts off,” he said bluntly. “Cam, during bracket play, we tried to sit her as much as we could, but in our four games yesterday she probably threw six innings and everyone was high stress.”
“Jiselle was phenomeal too, she got ground ball out after ground ball and helped us get to the Bombers which, you watched, it was a great game and was never a sure win until that last out was made.”
The A's were ranked #2 in the Extra Elite Eighty 14U Pre-Summer Rankings; the Bombers were #4.
Pitchers Cambria Salmon and Jiselle Hernandez (Athletics Mercado 2023)
Saturday Championship Day Scores
- Athletics – Mercado/Smith 12, Aces Fastpitch 4
- Georgia Impact 11, Atlanta Vipers 0
- Athletics – Mercado/Smith 1, Georgia Impact 0
- Texas Glory – Naudin 13, Select Fastpitch 0
- Athletics – Mercado/Greg 1, Aces Fastpitch 0
- Mojo - Fisher 4, Athletics – Mercado/Greg 0
- Hotshots Premier – Nelson 8, Texas Glory – Naudin 5
- Hotshots Premier – Nelson 2, Mojo - Fisher 1
- Texas Glory – Naudin 15, Aces Fastpitch 0
- Athletics Mercado 2023 1, Mojo – Danley 0
- Athletics Mercado 2023 5, Iowa Premier National 2
- Texas Bombers – Jones 7, Texas Glory – Naudin 1
- Athletics Mercado 2023 6, Texas Bombers – Jones 5