It was more than just a victory. It was a dream come true, a dream, a vision over five years in the making. And, when the final out was made Sunday afternoon in Salisbury, North Carolina, the Atlee Junior Softball All-Stars finally added Southeast Region Champions to their long and impressive resume.
The team arrived back in Hanover County late Sunday night, and were back on the practice field at noon Monday.
"It was at noon because three of our players had basketball camp at 8:30 in the morning," noted Atlee head coach Chris Mardigian.
The motors within these young ladies never quit, and now, they're headed to Kirkland, Washington and the Little League Junior Softball World Series, the culmination of the vision Mardigian had back when she first saw this group on a softball field.
"They were eight years old when we started playing All-Stars, and they had an understanding of the game and were extremely competitive," Mardigian recalled. "They wanted to win. They wanted to beat each other, too, when we played league against each other. They always did their best, but at the end of the game they were still friends. It's amazing. They play different positions, it doesn't matter to them. They go to another position, and it's seamless."
As these ladies have grown into teenagers, they've experienced great success, and a fair share of disappointment, including a runner-up finish at the Southeast Region Tournament just last season. But, rather than be discouraged, or worse, point fingers, every player has taken the lessons learned along the way, grown, and have played their role in putting Atlee where they are now, at the pinnacle of their sport at this level.
In the midst of the celebration, it's easy to forget some of the logistics the team will face over the next week, like how many players may be flying for the first time. But to get that experience, they had to get over the regional hump.
A 20-1 opening win over Tennessee set up a showdown with Florida last Saturday. Leslie Currie scattered five hits over seven innings and Atlee overcame two errors, scoring runs in the third and fifth innings to secure a berth in the title game with a 2-0 victory.
"They feed off each other. They're led, they lead. We'd been there before, we knew what to expect, and we knew we had to hold it together," Mardigian said of the tough semifinal win. "That's what brought us through that game, that and their chemistry."
Julia Mardigian doubled in the third inning, scoring on a Currie sacrifice fly to take the lead. Kelly Ayer scored in the fifth when a Currie groundball to shortstop was misplayed.
Sunday's final brought Moorefield, West Virginia to the diamond. Currie was strong again in the circle, scattering six hits in the 7-0 title game win. Jessica Russell opened the scoring for Atlee with an RBI single in the third inning, followed by another RBI single, this one from Emma Keys for a 2-0 lead.
Atlee added two runs in the fourth, scored by Reagan Hill and Ayer, then broke the game open with three runs in the sixth. Hill, Ayer and Mardigian each singled to load the bases. Hill scored on a wild pitch, while Ayer and Mardigian plated on a single from Currie.
In spite of multiple storm delays, the team kept focused and finished the shutout win to finally snare the region crown and bring it back to Hanover County.
Coach Mardigian, a second-generation Little Leaguer, has made a promise to herself to enjoy every moment of her team's journey to the Pacific Northwest. And now, with the trip of a lifetime about to start, she also took time to reflect on what this team, what these young ladies, have taught her.
"It's all about the love of the game. You can never lose the love of the game," Mardigian said in a moment of reflection. "You have to really want to be there and understand, get into your game knowledge and why you do what you do every day on the field. They taught me that. They showed me, quit being so competitive, love the game, let's get back to enjoying what we do."
You can be sure this group will enjoy every moment in the Pacific Northwest while doing everything they can to bring the ultimate trophy back home. But whether that happens or not, the Atlee Juniors have already learned a lesson many adults still seek to understand: never forget to love what you do, and do it for the love.
Atlee begins play Sunday in Pool A against the Asia-Pacific Region Champion at 5:45pm Eastern Time. They will face the Central Region champs Monday at 4:45, host Kirkland, Washington Tuesday at 2pm and the champions from Canada Wednesday at 1:45pm. Should they advance from pool play, single elimination games begin next Thursday.
Other members of the team are Alyssa Broaddus, Rylan Hubbard, Brylea Hicks, Aniston Martin, and Bella Pastore.
A GoFundMe page has been set up so individuals and businesses can help support the team by helping with expenses incurred for the trip. To learn more, and to donate, go to www.gofundme.com/atlee-little-
(The Atlee All-Stars meet pilot, and Hanover resident, Phil Judson at Richmond International Airport Friday en route to Seattle, Washington for the Little League World Series which begins Sunday afternoon)