The champion of the 11th Annual Space City Classic may have been the prohibitive favorite heading into the event, but Racks/Sonny’s/Athlon/Easton/Cutter from Casper, Wyoming won it the hard way by encountering some bumps along the path to the victory stand.
The Nationwide Conference USSSA tournament was played April 7-9 at Big League Dreams in League City, which is located minutes from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Space City was the second tournament of the 2017 Conference USSSA season, following the Sin City Classic two weeks earlier in Las Vegas.
The Space City Classic has drawn the largest number of total teams among all Conference USSSA tournaments each of the past eight years, and with 64 teams this year it will likely again be the largest. Many of those teams at Space City are C and D teams from the fertile Texas softball community. But this year the tournament was the strongest field ever, with 16 Conference USSSA teams (compared to just seven the year before) and included a Major team, three AA teams and six Class A teams. There were 26 Class B and above teams entered, including teams from 15 different states.
The 10 A and above Conference USSSA teams entered were Racks (Major), Nightmare/Miken from Branson, Missouri (AA); OC Swats/Semper from Yorba Linda, California (AA); Killbombers/DeMarini from Frisco, Texas (AA); Allout/Klutch/Worth from Houston (A); Baugh Ford/Adiktiv/Worth/Miken from Peachtree City, Georgia (A); Seminoles/TPS/Miken from Tulsa, Oklahoma (A); Money/Miken/ASP/A&A from Conroe, Texas (A); Pure Sports/HB from Charleston, South Carolina (A); and Steel Sports/Powerhouse Sportz/Miken from Corpus Christi (A).
Many teams played one or two games on Friday night, but Racks did not open until first thing Saturday morning and posted two easy wins over 8th Wonder/AMS from Richmond, Texas (38-8) and Bee Tech from Miami, Florida (29-22).
In the Saturday afternoon matinee, Racks had a couple of narrow victories over upset-minded opponents, Worsham Athletics/BF Cattle/Athlon from Hendersonville, North Carolina (37-34) and Money/Miken from Houston (27-23).
In the semi-finals of the winner’s bracket, Racks faced Steel Sports. Steel took a 28-24 lead in the top of the fifth inning on pitcher Perry Hensley’s grand slam. Then in the bottom of the fifth, Steel turned a 6-10-3 double play with the bases loaded to keep their lead to 28-27. In the seventh inning, Steel got a two-run homer from Matt Vasquez and a three-run homer from Mark Cridland to tie the game, 34-34. The game went to extra innings with both teams out of homers and Steel pulled off the upset when Racks infielder Sammy Christensen accidently hit an opposite-field home run for the third out because Racks had used all 12 of their home runs and Steel won (35-34.)
That forced them to play a late-night game against Pure Sports/HB, which they won (28-8). But the game did not end until close to 3 a.m. So with very little time for sleep, Racks returned to the fields at 8 a.m. Sunday to face Baugh Ford.
It was all Racks in that first game Sunday as Tim Howard hit a three-run homer and Racks separated from Baugh Ford in the bottom of the fourth, then left Baugh on the field in the fifth with a run-rule win (31-14). Next up was Steel in a re-match of the game they lost. This time Racks grabbed an early 11-run lead in the top of the first inning and Steel answered with six in the bottom half. In the top of the second, the Steel pitchers couldn’t throw a strike as Racks walked their way to a 15-run inning which was only stopped by a diving play by Steel second baseman Mark Cridland. Racks pushed the lead to 30-13 going into the bottom of the fourth before winning (32-14).
Racks advanced to the championship where Nightmare needed to be beaten twice. Nightmare grabbed a 10-7 lead on a Nolan Fogle three-run no-doubt homer and two-run homers by Eli Aguilar and Jesse Solomon. Racks then pulled ahead 11-10 through good home run management as Argen Dodds and Keith Laski hit it down for Tyson Steele who hit a three-run homer. Then in the fourth, Racks super utility man Ryan McClanahan hit a grand slam, Brian Faria hit a three-runner, and McClanahan would add two more homers in the inning to lead Racks to a 29-run fourth and a 39-16 win. McClanahan had 10 RBIs in the inning by himself. There was some chirping in the championship games between Billy Maggard and some of his opponents from Texas.
In the “If necessary” game of the championship, Racks led 14-8 after two innings and most of their outs were great line-drive stabs by the Nightmare infielders Hinojosa, Solomon, and Trammell. Nightmare closed the gap to 22-19 but left the bases loaded in the fifth, which was a pivotal moment and swung the momentum toward Racks. Racks added eight runs in the sixth and used a pinch hit bases-loaded double by Orlando Cano to extend the lead to 37-25 in the top of the seventh. Racks shut down Nightmare in the last two innings to just one run and won the game and the tournament (37-26).
“It obviously wasn’t the route we wanted to take, but it was a great feeling Sunday afternoon knowing every single guy on the roster stepped up to get the ultimate goal done for the team,” said Racks slugger Stuart Snell who lives in Texas. “We have always said we are never out of any game or tournament no matter the score or where we are in a bracket and this weekend proved to ourselves as long we play our game any other team will have to bring their ‘A’ game to beat us.”
Racks finished the tournament with a 9-1 record. They out-scored their opponents 342-200, which is an average 34.5 to 20 per game. Rack’s did themselves a huge favor by coming to Houston and winning first place, as the 214 Conference USSSA Points is more than they earned at any tournament in 2016 when they qualified for the Major World Series.
Nightmare settled for second place with a solid 6-2 record and earned 174 Conference USSSA Points, which will be helpful in their bid to make the Major World Series. Last year, Nightmare did not play in Houston and ended up 17th in the final standings just seven points away from the 16th and final qualifying position. Their only tournament to top 174 points last year was the 180 they earned by winning first place in Maryland.
Steel Sports came in third place with a 4-2 mark and Baugh Ford finished fourth with a 5-2 record. Levels from Denver, Colorado was the highest finishing non-Conference USSSA team as they posted a 7-2 record to tie with Pure Sports/HB for fifth place. Insidious, a non-Conference B team from Coweta, Oklahoma, tied with OC Swats for seventh place. Rounding out the Top 10 was Olmito Heat/Diamond Kings/Miken from Olmito, Texas; Allout/Klutch/Worth; Killbombers/DeMarini; and Money/Miken/ASP/A&A.
Daniel Kirkwood of Racks was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Ben Dunn of Nightmare was the Outstanding Offensive Player and Ryan McClanahan of Racks was the Outstanding Defensive Player. Sonny Pilcher of Racks won the All-Tournament Manager Award.
Others named to the All-Tournament team were Keith Laski, Tyson Steele, Jordan Spaulding, Adam Smylie and Argen Dodds, of Racks; Wes Newell, Brian Daniel, Billy Maggard and Zane Trammell, of Nightmare; Mark Cridland, Nick Shay, Everett Williams and Matt Vasquez, of Steel; John Zorich, Brad Blankenship and Chad Folsom, of Baugh Ford; Donald Plaisance and Andy Filotelo, of Pure Sports; and Brian Therkildsen and Dustin Wager, of Levels.
“Racks scored an important 214 Conference points with the victory and showed tremendous heart rolling through the loser’s bracket,” said veteran softball reporter Dale Weiser. “The weather was perfect in the 70’s and low 80’s with a nice breeze. The wind did affect a few games blowing in different directions on different fields and had an impact on the scoring at times. The Hy-cor ball bounced out of some gloves and could get slick to throw but overall was the right ball for the field dimensions.”
Weiser added, “The 64-team field makes for some very late nights and long days and you have to be impressed by Racks, Pure Sports, and Levels for their resilience on what had to be some very tired players.”
“On a final note, I want to commend Texas softball for all of their B and C teams that are stepping up and playing higher. If the rest of the country followed their lead, the B and C programs would be flourishing,” said Weiser.
In Conference tournaments with this many teams, USSSA awards paid berths to the respective World Tournaments for the highest finishing non-Conference teams in C and D. The C winners were D12 from League City and Big Ten from Denver, Colorado, who tied for 13th place; and the D winner was The Select Few from nearby Galveston, who tied for 17th place.
The Space City Classic also included a Men’s E N.I.T. and Men’s D Consolation bracket. In the E bracket, PLP from League City won first place, followed by Pound It from League City in second, TX Dirty Tribe from Baytown in third and the Houston Apaches in fourth. In the D Consolation, Habit from Pasadena, Texas was the champion and Panhandle Dynasty from Pensacola, Florida was runnerup.
The tournament used the Dudley Classic M+ balls, which are a higher core but lower compression than the Dudley ZN balls. The Classics help reduce home runs, which is needed on the smaller fence distances at Big League Dreams.
Jason Oberlag was as the Umpire-In-Chief for the tournament and handled all the bat testing. It was his first Conference USSSA event to serve in the UIC capacity and he did an outstanding job. There were also two crews of Nationwide Conference USSSA umpires including Ken Hawk, James Morrow, Randy Patton, Lee Eggers, Levi Lynch, Chance West, Don Lombard and Phillip Taylor.
The rest of the tournament was handled by the top USSSA umpires from throughout Texas who did an outstanding job. Some teams had their beef with a few close calls, but video showed that most of these were actually very close plays and almost impossible to get right in slow motion, let alone real game-speed in the heat of the moment in close games. Teams needed to adjust to various strike zones, but they did seem consistent once learned. Assistant UICs Rene Hinojosa, Ben Templeton and Jeff Neill and the entire crew of Texas umpires deserve a lot of credit for handling their share of the event.