The standings might not reflect it, but the Summit County Silver Strikers 14-and-under team has a lot to celebrate after its first week of staring down elite competition.
Made up of girls from Park City, Oakley, Peoa, Coalville, Francis, Woodland, Marion, Henefer and one player from Salt Lake City, the green team was defeated by mercy rule in each of five games played in the Triple Crown World Series (prior to Friday morning, when they were due to play again in the loser’s bracket at 10:15 a.m. in Coalville). Still, playing against many of the best travel teams in the Western United States, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
"I want that day to come where I don’t ever have to say ‘I don’t give a crud what the score is,’" said Silver Strikers head coach Scott Chester. "But right now, I really don’t. The growth is apparent."
The Strikers played twice on Tuesday in Coalville and twice again at the Quinn’s Junction Sports Complex on Wednesday. A 9-1 Thursday-morning loss meant the team would be booted after its first loss in the double elimination loser’s bracket on Friday. But to put things in perspective: Their opponent on Thursday, the Desert Wolves from Scottsdale, Ariz., had played in more than 120 games together this year. The Silver Strikers had played 11.
"There’s still so many good things that happened during the game," Chester said. "You just didn’t feel like we were getting killed in that game. It’s not just one error after another; we’re making good plays, the pitcher makes good pitches when she has to, we throw a runner out on a steal – there’s all those things that are going on in between the runs being scored that are really cool."
Summit County earned a spot in the tournament by committing to 250 service hours, and Chester acknowledges that playing near home provides some distracting comforts that their opponents don’t encounter. He doesn’t want summer nights at the lake to stop them from giving their best effort on the field, however.
"I don’t ever want to feel like we’re just in it because we live here, and because we work for Triple Crown," Chester said. "I want the girls to compete. If I’m a team coming into Park City to play in this tournament, I want to play other really good teams. I want to put a good product on the field."
Chester said anxiety was the Strikers’ worst enemy, and the nature of softball is that any lack of confidence will show. "It’s bizarre," he said. "If you’re even thinking that the ball’s coming to you – it’s just the softball gods – you make an error and you’re down on yourself, guess what? The next ball’s coming to you."
He and assistant coach Alissa Smith stressed the importance of being in "go mode" every time the Strikers stepped into the batter’s box, striding into each pitch like they’re going to hit it instead of hesitating and thinking about their parents or friends in the crowd.
"If that’s what you’re thinking about with two strikes, you’re not getting a hit," Chester said. "You just have to play and feel what it’s like to be in that situations, feel the butterflies in your stomach."
Mercy ruling aside, Chester’s team never relented, fighting back for two runs to extend a blowout game on Wednesday morning at Quinn’s Junction Sports Complex and earning the praise of the opposing coach, who was hoping to retire the Strikers quickly to gain a break before the next game. The Strikers also rarely struck out, making solid contact in most trips to the plate.
Chester’s daughter, Park City High School soon-to-be-sophomore Cass Chester, overcame an injury to her right elbow to pitch Thursday.
"That’s her first game really pitching since high school season," he said. "To come out here and pitch like that today, I was really proud of her."
Most of the pitching duties went to Salt Lake City’s Hailey Eskelson, who received an invitation at the last minute and also played shortstop for the Silver Strikers.
"She’s been great," Chester said. "We had a couple of girls who were on vacation, we had an injury, and it required us to go bring in another girl that could pitch some innings for us. That’s a really hard situation for girls – ‘Here, now you’re on this team’ – and it was important that the girl we picked would come in and help us compete, but also fit in with the girls."
Coalville’s Madie Harry played adept outfield and made several running catches, and Marion catcher Haylie Hardman gunned down a would-be base stealer on Thursday after consistent hitting all week.
"She’s just stinging the ball," Chester said of Hardman. "She’s gotten a hit in every game in the tournament, which is really impressive considering she’s only played in rec league before."
Chester said Henefer’s Kylee Jo Stokes provided smooth fielding at second base, put the ball in play often and was one of the team’s mental leaders. Woodland’s versatile Natalie Nichols played left field, center field, shortstop, pitcher and catcher for the Strikers.
"She goes out there and she tries hard," Chester said. "Our leadoff hitter went out of town, and since she took over as leadoff hitter, she got a base hit to start off every game."
Chester and Smith coached one of the 14-and-under all-star games on Thursday night ahead of next week’s wave of top talent, which will bring a handful of college recruiters to watch the 18-and-under and 16-and-under age groups.
"The good thing is, there’s games in every place," Chester said. "Everywhere the girls live, they can go during the day and watch softball. I know they did that last week with the 10s and 12s even, and they were like, ‘Wow.’ Yeah, wow. Some 12-year-old teams are pretty darn good."
The Strikers won two games at the Salt Lake Firecracker tournament ahead of the Triple Crown last week, and will get five or six players back from vacation during the month of August. Chester said the team will play three or four more tournaments before the fall.
"We’re so fortunate that this kind of softball comes into the town, not just because we’re getting the opportunity to play in it, but because we’re getting exposed to it," he said. "We’re getting exposed to the culture, the cheers, the dress, and the way the teams handle themselves. If we’re going to build softball here and get enough girls in each community to be able to play a higher level of softball, this is where it starts."
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