Rivalry to be continued

After winning the national softball championship in 2010, the SoCal Athletics started to hear whispers that they weren't really the best team in the country. Scott Kurtz

It's the holy grail of sport: a championship. You lift weights for it. You practice for it. You study for it. All to experience that moment on top. That one thing that can confirm, without question, that it's all worthwhile.

Phil Jackson, coach of the most championships in NBA history (11), once said, "I thrive on challenges, and there is no more imposing challenge for someone in my profession than winning an NBA title."

But what if Phil was wrong? What if he forgot something? What if the one thing harder than winning a championship is to do it again?

Such was the task of the SoCal Athletics, an 18 Gold softball club based in southern California.

In 2010, the Athletics' title run seemed overshadowed by the Worth Firecrackers, a team that bowed out of the national tournament without the services of a handful of Junior National Team members.

"All our team kept hearing was, 'Oh, if the Firecrackers had their junior national members, they would've beat them,' " Athletics coach Bruce Richardson said. "So we had a quiet motto in 2011: ‘We don't have any girls on the Junior National Team, but we'll beat you anyway.’ "

To defend a title, a team must find a unique sort of motivation. This was theirs.

"One of the biggest things we deal with in club ball is the motivational game," Richardson said. "You don't play competitive games all the time, so everything revolves around gearing the girls up for the summer."

And this past summer, the defending champs were more than ready. Ready for another title run, but also ready to prove to their naysayers that the Athletics could beat the Firecrackers at full strength. They got their chance last August in the national title game in Irvine, Calif.

The Athletics jumped out to a 3-1 lead through the first three innings thanks to an Alexis Mercado three-run home run. But the Firecrackers scored a run in both the fourth and fifth innings to tie the game. In the sixth they plated three more runs to double up the Athletics 6-3, in what seemed like a death blow.

But, as catcher Aubree Munro will tell you, a true champion will never let any score or circumstance dictate an attitude.

"Our team was on the same page in the dugout because we had done it last year. We were all like, 'We can do this!' It's never over with our team."

They answered with three runs in the bottom half of the sixth, tying the game at 6-6 as it headed for a seventh and final inning.

The Firecrackers threw a haymaker in the top of the seventh. With two runners on and one out, Kathlyn Medina singled home Cheyanne Tarango to drain the Athletics' momentum and take a 7-6 lead. Now the Firecrackers needed only three more outs to accomplish what many people thought they would've done in 2010 had they fielded their full squad.

Groundout. Groundout.

Quicker than you can put on a batting glove, there were two outs in the Athletics' half of the seventh inning.

But then, it started to happen. Nobody can define it or determine how to control it, but that's why we play sports. That's why we love sports. And especially softball, where it can happen at any moment, because there is no time limit. As long as you have an out to play with, you have a chance to define yourselves.

"With two outs in the seventh they walk Jenna Kelly and I'm sitting in the on-deck circle saying, 'OK they're walking her to get to me,' " said Munro, who admits that defense -- not hitting -- is her specialty. But she took a deep breath and knuckled a two-strike pitch to the right side of the infield that spun its way between the first and second basemen, prolonging the inning and giving leadoff hitter Danica Mercado a chance to swing the bat.

"At that time I was getting my ankle taped because I had sprained it," Mercado said. "But then they walked Jenna and Aubree gets the hit, and I was like, 'Oh my God, I might bat!’ ”

And bat she would, after Jasmine Smithson-Willett was hit by a pitch to load the bases.

So Mercado strolls to the plate to live the dream: Bottom of the last inning, two outs, bases loaded, your team down by a run, and you're up.

"She goes 3-0 on me and I'm thinking that I need to draw a walk to tie the game," Mercado said. "But then the next pitch was a strike and I just wanted to hit after that."

And as that fifth pitch flew toward the plate, Richardson, just a year removed from standing atop the club softball mountain, felt something tug at his insides.

"When stuff like that happens, there's gotta be some logical reason it happens to a team,” he said. “And I told the Firecrackers that they were such a great team, but we heard what people were saying. Our team knew that our win last season was tainted in some people's eyes."

So as that fifth pitch sailed in and Mercado swung as hard as she could, it's no wonder why aluminum contacted leather with the most magical of pops, and two runners scored on a hit up the middle.

The SoCal Athletics had accomplished what many had told them they wouldn't have done in 2010 had the Firecrackers been whole: beaten a team loaded with national-team-level talent.

And while the Athletics were piling on top of each other, the Firecrackers were packing their bags in the dugout with a newfound motivation: the agony of defeat.

Already, both teams have begun to retool for 2012 summer season and national tournament. Fall ball has given them the chance to target the best fits for next year's squad. In the last month, the Athletics have called up three players from their 16U team, plucked one from another 16U team, and welcomed a pitcher from Washington.

In a nutshell, that's sports. Each team searching for the motivation to lift, practice, and study harder than it did the year before. And when two teams as talented as the Firecrackers and Athletics get together, it's what creates these storybook moments. Rivalries, like stories, can always produce those three magic words:

To be continued.