When the heat is on, the Brookfield National Little League girls softball team always finds a way to keep its cool. With an Illinois state championship and an impressive 14-0 record already in the books this summer, the Brookfield National team possibly felt the pressure in its opening game at the Central Regional tournament held in Joplin, Mo.
However, trailing the state champs from Ohio 3-0 in sweltering conditions on Saturday afternoon, the placid Brookfield National team, also known as the Raptors, responded with a seven run fourth inning en route to a 9-3 victory.
"This team has the ability to be very relaxed before a game, but they turn it on once they start playing," said Brookfield National manager Danny Cook. "I told our girls even when we fell behind three runs to Ohio that we could get those runs back just as quickly."
Cook, with over 25 years of coaching experience, served as a rather prophetic skipper watching his team score nine unanswered runs against the highly regarded squad from the Buckeye state.
In the fourth inning, Haley McCarthy and Haley St. Paul ignited the Brookfield National comeback when they reached base via walks. Jackie LaManna, an outstanding clutch hitter, promptly delivered a two-RBI single. Courtney Spirek then reached base with a walk before Becky Pendola tied the game at 3-3 with a single.
With the Raptors' rally in full gear, Cassandra Cook, Karen Caithamer and Skye Riddle applied more pressure to Ohio with a series of walks and hits. Rachel Denneny smacked another key hit in the productive frame with a two-RBI single.
While Caithamer cruised along on the mound, LaManna inflicted more damage with a single in the sixth that scored Caithamer and Cook for a comfortable 9-3 lead. Caithamer, who earned her ninth win of the summer, struck out four batters and demonstrated excellent control and tempo with her pitches.
In addition to the pitching staff ace Caithamer, Denneny (4-0) and Cook have served as effective pitching options for the Raptors. Erin McKenna, Allison Skala and Bridget Brewer, who also have played well, provide team depth and versatility.
"Our pitching is always a major key to our success," Cook said. "We made some solid plays defensively. Our offense does not really have any weak spots. This is a very dedicated team with great balance that's willing to adjust to different situations on the field."
The victory over Ohio propels Brookfield National into a series of games during the next week in Joplin. The overall winner of the Central Regional tournament, which boasts 12 state champions, will move on to the prestigious Little League Softball World Series in Portland, Ore.
"I don't ever tell the girls they have to win," said Cook, whose roster includes players ranging from ages 11 to 13. "It's just a game and there are bigger things in life."
True to this broader perspective, the Raptors have given softball exhibitions at Hines Hospital, have been involved in fundraising events, and simply like to have fun beyond the softball diamond.
"If we win games, we try to reward the team with fun trips like going downtown to see Millennium Park and Buckingham Fountain," Cook said. "The trip to Joplin was 580 miles and called for a lot of stops, but we have tried to keep things fun."
Ultimately, the trip to Joplin figures to be a valuable experience regardless of result; however, Cook, coach Rob Denneny and the tight knit Raptors would like an additional excursion to the Great Northwest for the Little League World Series.
"The Brookfield National team won the World Series title in 1985 under Danny Hull," noted Cook, who has a close relationship with coach Hull. "We are hoping we can do what he did."
The Little League World Series is a week-long event culminating with the title game Aug. 16 to be aired on ESPN 2. Top teams from Europe, Canada, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and six regional champions from the United States will comprise the 10-team tournament. For more information, visit softballworldseries.com.
Playing teams this week in the Central Regional tournament from Michigan, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri, Cook maintains an unassuming confidence reflective of his team.
"Our players really listen to Rob [Denneny] and me in order to get the job done," Cook said. "Some games we often can appear as underdogs, but we focus on playing our game."
So far "their game" has produced an undefeated 14-0 summer record, a state championship, and just maybe a shot at the World Series.