By Courtney Oakes
AURORA, Colo. -- Hampered by injuries and with only two pitchers available, the Hotshots Jones team seemed ill-equipped to make the grueling journey to the championship game of the 16u Power Pool.
But coach Steve Jones’ team has the type of grit, heart and belief that is able to overcome all sorts of adversity, and it did so on many occasions throughout the week on its way to winning the championship of the Colorado 4th of July tournament.
The Hotshots dug out of an early five-run hole with back-to-back explosive rallies and went on to a 13-8 victory over the Tampa Bay Mustangs Rene on a blustery afternoon game Sunday at the Aurora Sports Park. It was the fourth game of the day for both squads and the Texas-based Hotshots simply found another way to win.
“We’re down some key players and we only have two pitchers, but the rest of the girls stepped up,” Jones said. “The thing about this team that's special is that I don’t know who is going to step up in a game. I’m proud of them being able to do what they did with the players that were out.”
To get to the championship game, the Hotshots won a one-run decision to open the day, followed with a 10-run decision and then needed a four-run rally in the final inning for an 11-8 walk-off win (courtesy of a three-run home run by Kennedy Marceaux) over Firecrackers Brashear.
One of the Hotshots’ three regular pitchers had shoulder soreness and Jones decided to hold her out of the tournament to heal, leaving all of the pitching duties to Mali West (Class of 2025) and Amy Abke (2023), who alternated on the mound all week and in the championship contest. It was West (a left-hander) who got the start against a Tampa Bay team that came in hot after pulling off a late rally of its own to defeat the Oklahoma Athletics National 13-8, which followed two close victories earlier in the day.
West fell behind by two runs just five batters into the game after Riley Onisawa drew a bases-loaded walk and Ella Dodge singled in another run. She later surrendered her first two home runs of the tournament — quite a feat given how much the ball seems to fly off the bats of visitors to Colorado — as Lauren Luciani (solo) and Tayten Moore (a three-run shot) put coach Rene Ciccarello Jr.’s Mustangs ahead 6-1 at that point.
Despite the deficit, West — who was replaced in the inning by Abke — knew the game was far from over with the way her team plays.
“I actually didn’t give up any bombs until this game, but spin was the key in Colorado,” West said. “The ball didn’t have as much spin, so you had to work harder in the air out here. I was a little bit nervous, but it was good. We always come around.”
And come around the Hotshots — who returned to the tournament after playing in a different one last summer — did.
After barely getting the ball out of the infield over the first three innings against Tampa Bay starting pitcher Isabella Vega — whose lone run given up in those early frames came when a wild pitch followed by an error allowed Hailey Golden to score — the Hotshots rallied for four runs in the bottom of the fourth inning that included home runs from second baseman Kristyn Whitlock and third baseman Bryanna Fuentes.
Fuentes would homer again in the next inning to plate three runs as the Hotshots surged to a 10-6 lead.
“It felt great in the moment,” said Fuentes, who drove in five runs on the day. “I knew my team had my back and when you know they have your back, you feel more free.
“I just tried to be a spark like Coach says.”
Roni Harrison followed Fuentes’ homer with a solo blast and then leadoff hitter Moriah Polar — who was cramping severely in the game — cranked our her fourth big fly of the tournament for the third homer in a four-batter span for the team.
“She was celebrating with the kids in the dugout and I told her ‘That was just a big pop up, you’re lucky you are in Colorado,’” Jones said with a smile.
The Hotshots’ fourth-inning rally (which began after catcher Bella Perez worked a walk as the payoff for a 10-pitch at-bat) saw 13 hitters come to the plate against four Tampa Bay pitchers, the last of which was DaNia Brooks, whose father Derrick (an NFL Hall of Fame linebacker with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) is an assistant coach with the Mustangs.
Brooks would hit a two-run homer in the seventh inning, but that was all Tampa Bay registered in three innings against Abke, who had retired eight batters in a row before walking Moore ahead of Brooks’ home run, which capped a 3-for-3 day for her.
“Playing back-to-back-to-back-to-back games on the last day is hard,” said Jones, who got two hits apiece from Golden and Perez and two RBI from Whitlock in the clinching victory.
“It’s been a great tournament,” he added. “We lost our first game to Athletics Mercado — who we run-ruled last time we played — and we were down a couple of times, but these kids are just resilient. When we won that last game (vs. Firecrackers Brashear), I told them ‘You guys may not believe it, but I was standing in that coaches box with one out in the seventh inning and knew we were winning that game.’
“This team has character. They know they have time. As long as there is one more out left, they can come back.”
Added West: “We always somehow find a way to come through and win. That’s always our energy.”