February 2, 2020 was Groundhog Day, Super Bowl Sunday and the finale of the PGF Qualifier in Myrtle Beach, South all on the same eventful day.
In our Monday edition of The Last Inning, we detailed those who earned their berths to PGF Nationals this summer and today we’re drilling down deeper into how the two teams at the 16U age division got it done—let’s just say it had to do with shut-down pitching, timely hitting and a lot of fun!
Here, in their own words, are the perspectives of the two head coaches whose teams beat in the 16U championship game: Philip Belfield’s Stars Nationals and Camille Hayes’ PA Strikers…
Stars Nationals – Belfield (Champion)
This was one of the largest qualifying tournaments in the country for 16U with 24 teams representing 15 different states, including California, Colorado and New York.
Rain covered the Myrtle Beach area all day on Friday, January 31, the day before the tournament, causing some delays and changes for early Saturday morning. Cold and wet was an understatement to start the day!
Our Stars National Belfield team drew Fury Platinum Bray in the first round. Offensively, we won the box score finishing with eight hits to Fury Platinum’s two hits, but we simply couldn’t find the timely hit.
We stranded runner(s) in scoring position every inning. In the top of the 6th inning, Trinity Martin stole second base and with one out scored from third on a ground ball to the second baseman by Kendall Owens giving our Stars National the run we needed. Kaylyn Belfield, an uncommitted 2022 ranked #51 in the Extra Elite 100, went 2-for-3 with two stolen bases, while Tori Womack also collected two hits. Pitcher Morgan Hess, a Presbyterian College commit, went the distance for Stars National with 11 strikeouts with Riley Kokinda for Fury Platinum recorded both hits.
In Game 2, we faced one of the most prolific pitchers in the country in Allison Benning, a 2021 commit to Oregon ranked in the Top 50 of the Extra Elite 100, and Top Gun Academy from Missouri. We countered with Eden Bigham, considered one of the top 2022 pitching prospects on the East Coast.
Those two wouldn’t disappoint as Benning recorded 14 K’s and Bigham 13 K’s. Kaylyn Belfield collected two hits and a stolen base, while Tori Womack and uncommitted 2022 Sarah Gordon picked up one hit each. Rachel Roupe, a 2021 Liberty commit ranked #99 in the Extra Elite 100, and Belfield both forced Top Gun into throwing errors giving Stars National a 2-0 advantage that held up in Bigham’s shutdown performance as she did not allow a walk and only one batter reached base by error.
The bats picked up for Stars National in the third round against East Cobb Bullets – Glenn from Georgia. After a stellar double play by shortstop Trinity Nichols ended the second inning, 2021 James Madison commit Taylor Hankins hit a solo HR in the top of the third to jump start the Stars National to a four-run inning.
We then collected hits and runs scored by Belfield, Roupe and Gordon. Gordon, Trinity Nichols, an uncommitted 2022 ranked #54 in the Extra Elite 100, and Owens all collected RBIs. Taylor Hankins pitched two shutout innings while Rachel Roupe threw four innings striking out four and allowing just one run in the 5-1 Stars National win.
Sunday, the Stars National team faced Carolina Cardinals - Apple in what looked like another pitcher’s duel early on. We broke open a 3-2 game with two more runs in the 4th and nine runs in the 5th inning to walk away with a 14-2 win. Our Stars National squad collected 13 hits, including three hits and a stolen base from 2021 Campbell University commit Alyssa Henault with three hits and four RBIs from Kendall Owens, two hits and four RBI from Rachel Roupe and two hits from Trinity Nichols. Belfield and Womack also recorded hits. Taylor Hankins gave up two earned runs in 2 and 2/3 innings before Morgan Hess shut the door throwing the final 2 and 1/3 innings of scoreless softball striking out two.
The winner’s bracket championship would pit Stars National Belfield against the PA Strikers National Hayes in what would be another pitcher’s duel, this time between Eden Bigham and the Strikers 2021 uncommitted pitcher Keri Munn. In the third inning, our catcher Sara Gordon caught a runner stealing followed up by a diving catch in foul territory by Trinity Nichols that closed the 3rd inning.
Stars National carried that momentum into the top of the 4th when Nichols lead of the inning with a single and then advanced to second when Tori Womack reached on an error. Alyssa Henault later walked in the inning to load the bases and, with two outs, Kaylyn Belfield found herself behind in the count 0-2. She fought back, fouling off multiple pitches and then drew the bases loaded walk to give Stars National the one and only run they needed.
A scoreless game through three innings, we scratched one across in the fourth. Bigham struck out three of the last four batters to end the game and seal the premier berth for Stars National Belfield.
I am very proud of our team! We have such a great group of girls, parents and a great coaching staff. We knew we had one of the most talented rosters we have ever had, but we haven’t played a game in three months, so we really didn’t know what to expect.
Our pitching staff was outstanding. We had three shutouts and only gave up three runs. When your pitchers do that, it makes winning easier. When you win a tournament like this, it truly takes every player at some point doing at least one thing significant that changed the outcome.
Many of our players came up clutch multiple times. We are looking forward to competing in Huntington Beach in the Premier Division as the girls earned it!
--- Philip Belfield, Stars National head coach
PA Strikers – Hayes (Runner-Up)
For the fourth year in a row, the PA Strikers National Team punched its ticket to PGF Nationals by playing in a South East Region winter qualifier and proudly earned the berth to play in the prestigious PGF Nationals event filled with the country’s top teams.
The 16U field of 24 at the early February Myrtle Beach event included many Extra Inning Softball nationally ranked teams – but that didn’t matter to the Northeast-based PA Strikers who were really just excited to get back on the field and have the chance to play together again after the holiday break.
The goal for the PA Strikers was obviously to play to earn their premier berth, but for this team, whose core has been together for years, playing in the early winter qualifier meant being back together again to bond and have fun - both on and off the field, before high school ball separates them again in the early Spring.
The laughter started from the moment they met at the airport to fly south and didn’t stop until they hugged and said goodbye in the parking garage elevator late Sunday night.
The qualifiers also act as a litmus test of just how good your team is and how your team stacks up against the competition you’ll most likely see all summer long – so that’s exciting for teams like the PA Strikers who take such pride in the name they wear on the front of their jersey.
And most of the players who attend these national qualifiers have played against each other for years and they actually know each other well. Some of them are former teammates – and many of them are committed to the same colleges and will be future teammates.
Off the field, they follow each other on social media; they text, have group chats and even share laughs, hugs and high fives. There’s always a mutual respect for these talented athletes who play at this level. But once the game begins and teams take the field, it becomes bragging rights and a thrilling competitive fight to show who is the best – at least for the weekend (that goes for coaches as well and not just players).
The PA Strikers went back to PA, berth earned!
But the memories of this past weekend aren’t just about what they accomplished on the field together—it’s also about how much fun and laughter they shared together off the field as well – and that’s what makes qualifying for PGF Nationals not just exciting – but also so much fun!
-- Camille Hayes, PA Strikers 16U head coach