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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
It has been a decade since the Artesia Punishers 18-Under travel softball team won the USA/Amateur Softball Association 18-Under ‘A’ National Championship, the only one in the program’s history. But the memories are still very vivid to the players, coaches and manager Bob Medina, who also serves as the president of the Punishers program.
On Aug. 5, 2007, in front of a huge crowd at the Texas A & M Aggie Softball Complex, the Punishers rallied for two runs in the top of the seventh inning and edged the (Sacramento) California Breeze 6-5. The win capped an unbelievable summer that saw the Punishers lose just one game in five major tournaments.
“It seems like it’s been a long time,” Medina said. “I remember every moment of everything that was happening when [we] were there. I relive it.
“I would say me, my coaches, people who I have seen talk about it probably, if it doesn’t come up once every month, it comes up at least once every four months. So, it comes up quite often, that we go back and talk about the kids’ performance, their focus, their vision. Just the karma that was around them…you knew that they were going to win.”
In fact, it was one of the parents, who kept stats, that told Medina on the bus ride home that the team had lost only one game that summer. That would come in a pool play game on Tuesday, July 31, a 4-2 setback to the (Concord, N.C.) Carolina Cobras.
The writing was already on the wall the previous summer as one could see that the Punishers were building a dominant team that could win the highest title any travel ball team could win. In 2006, the Punishers won the State Tournament for the first time ever, held in front of its home crowd at Artesia Park, and entered the United States Specialty Sports Association Elite World Series in Kissimmee, FL with a 16-1 record. That team would have eight players that stayed with the team for the 2007 season. But no one could see what was in store for the Punishers 10 years ago.
In five games played in the 2007 state tournament, the Punishers posted three shutouts and allowed four runs. In four playoff games of the Summer Slam Tournament, the Punishers outscored their opponents 31-3 and in the Onslaught Tournament, they scored 29 runs and allowed only four.
“The team played for each other,” Medina remembered. “They had the karma, the swagger; they knew that they could win. They knew it. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest team, but we got everything done and everybody believed in what we were there for.”
Through the help of one of Medina’s friends, the team made the long trek to College Station, TX on a bus and left Artesia in the early afternoon hours on July 27 and arrived in the Lone Star state the next day. After playing a pool game each on July 30 and 31, the Punishers met the (San Juan Capistrano) Desperados in the first game of the double elimination portion and for the fourth time that summer, came away as the victors in a 6-1 decision.
That was followed by two straight shutouts on Aug. 2, the first being an uncontested 8-0 win against the Lake County (IL) Liberty in the morning, then a hard fought 2-0 win over the Fort Collins (CO) Buckaroos in a game that started at 11:57 p.m. The game was delayed nearly 30 minutes because a brief thunderstorm had rolled through the Brazos Valley earlier that afternoon.
“I remember the one biggest thing of that game was the girls came up to me and said, ‘Coach Bobby, there are about a million bugs [around]’,” Medina said. “And there were a million bugs. You look up in the light and there were a million, if not, then two million. I told the girls, ‘look, we have to play. Everybody else is playing. Get over it and let’s just move forward’. Everyone just blocked the bugs out of their mind until after the game.”
“I think my utmost memory is the game we had to play at 12:30 a.m.,” said right fielder Lindsey Marquez. “I remember Bob putting us on room lockdown [in the afternoon] to just rest for that game. It was such an experience, with lots of bugs, but a game I will never forget.”
The win over the Buckaroos was the first against three state champions and following a relatively easy 7-1 win over the (San Diego) Breakers on Aug. 3, the Punishers were put to the test for the first time in the tournament when they faced the (Joplin) Missouri Firestix. The Punishers had a 2-0 lead after half an inning and were looking good when the lead expanded to 4-0 heading into the bottom of the fifth. But the Firestix rallied and sent the game to extra innings where the Punishers came away with a 10-5 win in nine innings. Designated player Sam Vaaulu went three for five in the contest.
That would be the first of three games on Aug. 4 with the next one being a 6-0 win over the (Birmingham) Alabama Pride, another state champion. In the semifinals against the Miami Stingrays, the Punishers had to rally for two runs in the top of the fifth to edge the Florida state champions 3-2. Pitcher Maritza Rocha, who was completely brilliant in Texas, allowed four hits, struck out nine and retired 13 straight batters in one stretch. The game is one that easily stands out for Medina of the 10 the Punishers played in the tournament.
“I can remember,” he said. “It was the [Miami] Stingrays and we beat them 3-2. One run that we got, I remember the shortstop got an error and we ran Katie Jordan from second [base] into home and the ball only went three feet away from her. They were probably one of the best teams there that we faced, other than the team we faced in the championship.”
The back and forth battle against the Breeze wasn’t decided until shortstop Jennifer Frazier hit a single to bring home the tying and winning runs. The Punishers had leads of 3-0 and 4-2 before the Breeze scored three runs in the bottom of the sixth.
“That was a game where, and if you remember back then, the girls could come back from college and play,” Medina said. “So, if they were a freshman in college and as long as they were age eligible, they could come back and play. [The California Breeze] had 10 or 11 Pac-12 All-Americans. The coach called me and congratulated me after that and told me, ‘you guys did play against good, solid players who were on Pac-12 teams’.”
The 2007 team had everything-hitting, pitching and defense. Rocha threw 45.1 innings, allowed 33 hits and struck out 62 batters while Frazier batted .469, followed by center fielder Katie Jordan (.378) and third baseman Jodi Nakawatase (.351). Eight players were playing in the final game as a Punisher and of those, six were returning from the 2006 team.
“The offensive end of it was solid,” Medina said. “They believed in each other. If one didn’t do it, then the other one would back her up. They played for each other; it was really nice. It’s been a while since I’ve had a team like that. So, that’s why the memories keep coming up. You try to achieve that same goal with these same kids nowadays and it’s pretty tough.
“That was the family atmosphere that we created and we still try to create it today,” Medina later said. “But they earned their right to be on that team. They earned their right for a national championship, they earned their right to play for the top team of the organization. And when it was their turn, they really accomplished that goal.”
“I think that this team had an amazing bond,” Marquez said. “We were a huge family and a good amount of us grew up with the Punishers. So, we had this dedication to the Punishers and pride, and we definitely had a great group of talent. Jenn, Alyssa (Morales), Jodi were some amazing athletes and I had always looked up to them. And to play with them at their level was just unbelievable. But every player brought something to the team we truly were such a strong lineup offensively and when we were on our game, we were unstoppable.”
Marquez said that playing for the Punishers taught her dedication, pride, hard work, teamwork and consistency, among other things. It also had a huge impact on her collegiate playing days at Utah State University because she had already played with several girls who had one year of college already behind them when the 2007 season began.
Since the Punishers won that National Championship, a lot has changed for the program as well as the world of travel ball. The most significant change has been the emergence of the Premier Girls Fastpitch (PGF), an organization that has successfully seen many of the previous ASA powerhouse programs across the country join their organization. The PGF was formed in 2010, the last year Medina took an 18-Under team to the ASA Nationals, held in Hemet. And unlike going to various cities every year for Nationals, the PGF has held its National Championship tournament in Southern California at the Fountain Valley Sports Park, the Huntington Beach Sports Complex and Bill Barber Park in Irvine.
Another major change between the ASA and PGF is that no players who are already in college can play for a PGF team. Another organization, the American Fastpitch Association (AFA) is one where teams can play of a national title. In fact, the AFA Nationals will take place from July 24-30 in Fontana and five teams from the Punishers family will be a part of it.
“I think that’s why we’re getting [softball in] the Olympics back,” Medina said. “But in 10 years, what I’ve seen is a lot of changes. There’s a team that pops up every day. If two people are good on a team, they can start a new team. There are so many teams here and lot of the them are very competitive. They have some good coaches out there and they have a lot of energy.
“But what I’ve also seen in the softball community is once the kid graduates, they’re done,” he continued. “It’s like we have a revolving door for the kids and we have a revolving door for the coaches. It’s changing quite a bit.”
Medina has already participated in several PGF National Championships and while he hasn’t won one yet, his focus for most of the past decade has been getting scholarships for his players. But what about willing a second national championship? Medina will have another crack at it on July 22 when pool play action begins in the PGF National Championship with the title game to be played on July 28.
“Do I ever wish that I could have it,” Medina questioned. “Yes, I really do. Do I think sometimes that I have the talent that is that good? Yes, I do. I believe we can get that. I’ve been focusing a lot on getting scholarships. But even on that, you have kids that come in, get the scholarships and then they’ll leave and stuff like that. That takes a too too.”