Officially, the Junior Softball World Series ended with just one winner, the West. With a 10-4 win over Latin America on Aug. 16, the West team (from Pusch Ridge Little League of Oro Valley, Ariz.) took the title. But in reality, all nine teams in the August 10-16 tournament at Kirkland’s Everest Park came away winners.
“This was an incredible stretch for these girls,” said Kevin Franklin, manager of the South team. “Just getting here is a huge feat. It’s been their dream for five or six years.”
Representing the South from Tampa, Fla., Franklin’s squad started off the week-long tournament on fire. They defeated Canada and host Kirkland National Little League by a combined score of 29-8 before falling to Latin America and Southwest in pool play. All teams played a round-robin format in two pools (A and B) before meeting for semifinal games.
Keeping spirits high, the South team took advantage of their visit to enjoy their surroundings and find a number of adventures around the Seattle area.
They managed to see a game between the Mariners and their own home team, the Tampa Bay Rays (the Rays won 8-7). They also took a trip to Mt. Rainier, where a few teammates got an unexpected surprise: snow.
“A few of the girls got to see snow for the first time,” said Natalie Franklin, a member of the South team and Kevin’s daughter. “They just started screaming and jumping in it.”
The 14-year-old said the snowball fights and other fun at Mt. Rainier was one of many highlights of the week.
“It’s been just perfect, a thoroughly enjoyable week,” Franklin said.
The Kirkland National Little League team made every effort to duplicate the feel of going away to a big tournament. The team stayed in a hotel together, had nightly curfews and even had to give up their cell phones at night – by far the most controversial move according to manager Keith Wilson.
“Talk about a revolt against the coach,” Wilson said.
The hosts finished 1-3 in the round-robin games, with their best performance an 11-0 win over Canada on Aug. 12. But there were no bitter feelings after the big win. In fact, the two teams shared a hotel and struck up a special bond throughout the week.
Wilson said the two teams took part in a moderate prank war through the week and enjoyed spending time together. The camraderie showed up in a tournament quirk.
Because representatives from the Asia Pacific region had to drop out due to visa and travel problems, the two pools were uneven. Pool A had five teams, Pool B four, leaving Canada without anyone to play on the final day. The Kirkland hosts stepped up and offered to play an extra game the final day of the tournament against Canada, so the Canadians would have a game to play.
Wilson said the tournament was about finding the balance between having fun and being competitive. He didn’t want the girls to be embarrassed on the field, but he wanted them to be relaxed and have fun as well. The Host girls also did a number of activities including a scavenger hunt and a boat ride on Lake Washington.
“We really wanted to prove that we’re meant to be there,” said Molly Ichikawa, a member of the Host team. “Everybody else had to win more tournaments, we just had to win our district. So we really wanted to prove we could play with those teams.”
It’s been a long season for the girls – the 15-year-old Ichikawa estimated the teams had been playing since April of this year – and a long road to the end. But Wilson said it was worth it for the memories they’ll have.
“This is a once in a lifetime experience for them,” Wilson said. “As a coach I’d love to be playing for the championship game, but you move forward and make it a learning experience.”
Other teams in the tournament (pool record): Latin America, Puerto Rico (4-0), Southwest, Louisiana (3-1), Canada, Ontario (0-4), East, Pennsylvania (2-1), Central, Ohio (1-2), Europe, Netherlands (0-3).