Nina Flores hid the sunflower seed bucket inconspicuously in plain sight, off to the right of where her East Pass coaches and teammates gathered to have their photos snapped by beaming, camera-wielding parents.
The Texas West squad had just wrapped up a daunting run of perfection by eking out a 4-2 win over Vidalia, La., in Tuesday’s Southwest Regional championship of the Little League Juniors Softball Tournament. Too preoccupied with the scene, manager Cesar Flores didn’t notice the other Flores had slipped away, scooped up the bucket and was charging right toward him.
She splashed assistant coach Marco Lopez, but Flores got the brunt of the Gatorade bath. He stood at the edge of Alto Park with a grin as wide as home plate, his burnt-orange shirt sopping wet. Lucky for him, it was only water.
Whereas Vidalia had to overcome hell and high water to reach Tuesday’s showdown, unbeaten Eagle Pass motored succinctly toward the championship. And on to the Little League Junior Softball World Series in Kirkland, Wash.
Vidalia, meanwhile, took the circuitous route to even have a chance. It played five games and had to beat Eagle Pass twice to advance.
Little did it know, it was contending with a team forged in a crucible of comfort and familiarity.
The city of Eagle Pass is situated in a remote part of Texas, about 150 miles west of San Antonio, so Flores said many of the players have competed together for five or more years. They’re a band of sisters, conjoined — whether they want to be or not — by their locale.
“They don’t have no option but to play together,” Flores said. “In our town, you either play for us, or you don’t.”
As was the case for Vidalia in this tournament, whose bats worked either for or against.
The Louisiana representative earned every bit of its ball-bludgeoning reputation, cranking out 45 runs over a three-game stretch in plowing its way to Tuesday’s regional championship. But Vidalia’s bruising bats suddenly became sticks, the softball looked marble-size, and it couldn’t mass-produce enough hits for the desired run total.
Pitcher Julia Cruz worked nearly three scoreless innings before Vidalia figured her out. And by then, it had spotted Eagle Pass a 3-0 lead.
It was Vidalia pitcher Elizabeth Smith’s early struggles that pushed the Texas West ballclub’s first run across the plate in the opening frame.
She tossed the ball to second in a pickoff attempt, but it floated over the baseman’s head and into the outfield, allowing the runner to dart home.
Eagle Pass added two runs in the third, off a pair of RBI singles. Cassandra Flores’ blooper sailed just over Smith’s outstretched arms.
One batter later, Anna Aguado slapped a single into the right-field gap to make it 3-0.
Vidalia painstakingly trudged its way back and pulled within 3-2 in the sixth inning.
Cruz found herself in a squeeze after Aguado mishandled a routine putout at first. It would have been Vidalia’s third out and quashed an uprising before it got started.
Instead Laken Hood doubled home a run and put Vidalia in prime position to take the lead with runners on second and third.
Emily Isbell cracked a would-be single down the right-field line, but Monica Rodriguez made a snow-cone grab to avert the crisis.
The ball teetered ominously at the top of her glove before she secured it.
Eagle Pass added an insurance run in the seventh, which was all the breathing room Cruz needed.
She fanned the first two batters she faced in the seventh and coaxed a six-pitch lineout to end the game.
And cue the celebration.
“It was a tough journey,” Cruz said. “We wanted to get here, and now, we finally did. I just set my head straight and said, ‘I’m gonna do this,’ and I did it. It is the most amazing feeling I’ve ever felt.”
As volatile as his team is, Flores said it’s equally adaptable. Which will suit it well when it squares off in the next round.
“When it’s a low-scoring game, they forget their bats,” he said. “When it’s a high-scoring game, they come out swinging. I don’t think it’s hit them yet. It’s a dream come true.”
Contact Isaac Avilucea at 986-3032 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @IsaacAvilucea.