Very few epic sports matchups live up to their advance billing.
And even fewer times does the underdog pull off the upset.
Muhammad Ali knocking out the much younger, stronger and heavily-favored George Foreman at the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974 is one that fits the bill.
The Space City Women’s USSSA Major N.I.T. in Houston, Texas was more like a wrestling-style battle royal, in which multiple grapplers enter the ring until all but one is left standing. With multiple Top 10 national teams in the field, the Space City could have easily been dubbed the “Smoky Mountain of Women’s Softball.”
The biggest name on the ticket was the Derby Girls/OA/Legacy/Easton. Last year, the heralded team from Kent, Washington won first place at both the Women’s A World Tournament and Women’s Major World Series. Their entire team has been selected to be Team USA for the Border Battle against Canada later this summer. Some avid followers of the USSSA Women’s Major program predicted the Derby Girls would not lose a single game all year. They got off to a good start the week before Houston by going undefeated at the Sin City Classic in Las Vegas.
But the Derby Girls were hardly in for a cakewalk at Space City, as several other top teams were in the field headed by the infamous Enough Said/Easton team from Tallahassee, Florida who rivals Canaan Illusions as the greatest women’s dynasty of all-time. Enough Said won first place at the 2015 Women’s Major World Series, where the Derby Girls tied for fifth place. Enough Said also won first place at the Women’s Class A World Tournament in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Other top teams in the field included Miken SSE, based in Houston but with a Florida-flavored roster, who finished second behind Enough Said at the 2015 Major World Series. Smash It Sports from Lorton, Virginia and Texas Sports/Armor Gel/Mizuno from Spring, Texas both qualified for and won games at the 2016 Women’s Major World Series.
Finally, the tenacious Bryant, Express from Bryant, Arkansas was in the field. B.E. has had a lot of success in Texas over the years, winning the Lone Star Shootout “Battle For The Rings” twice. In 2015, Bryant Express hit the national stage by winning first place at the Women’s C World Tournament. They followed that up last year by winning first place at the Women’s B World Tournament, then later finishing third at the Women A World Tournament. During the A World, Bryant Express lost a controversial one-run game (18-17) to the eventual-champion Derby Girls in the semi-finals of the winner’s bracket.
At Space City, the Derby Girls won their first two games of the tournament by beating the Super Women from Houston (24-4) and Lady Brokers from Carrollton, Texas (20-8) to set up a re-match with Bryant Express. The Derby Girls destroyed the Arkansas team (15-1) to advance to the finals of the winner’s bracket, where they crushed Smash It Sports (21-1) to move on to the championship game.
Bryant Express had snuck past Lady Ego/KV Weld from Pearland, Texas in their first game (8-6) and then beat rival Lady Top Dog from Beaumont, Texas (22-10) before getting crushed by the Derby Girls. Bryant Express dropped to the loser’s bracket and beat Miken SSE (13-5) to make it to Championship Sunday.
The Women’s N.I.T. games, which had been played on dirt infields at Houston Sportsplex on Saturday, moved to the turf fields at Big League Dreams on Sunday where they joined the final round of the Space City Men’s Major Conference USSSA tournament.
Bryant Express opened their improbable Sunday run by squeezing past Enough Said in a close game (22-20). They followed that with a big win over Smash It Sports (23-8) to advance to the championship game. Facing the daunting task of having to beat the seemingly-invincible Derby Girls twice to win the crown, Bryant Express got to work.
The first game went back-and forth all game long, which favored the home team Derby Girls who had the last at-bat. Bryant Express took a narrow two-run lead into the top of the seventh inning (13-11). The Derby Girls answered with a lead-off home run in the bottom of the frame, to cut the lead to just one. The next batter hit a triple into the right-field corner, but slipped after rounding third-base too far and got tagged out trying to crawl back to the bag. The Derby Girls picked up a clutch two-out hit to tie the game (13-13) but could not push across another run, so the game went to extra innings.
Bryant Express scored two in the top of the eighth and the Derby Girls could not answer, so Bryant won (15-13) and the two teams moved on to the “If necessary” game. Bryant Express was playing their eighth game of the weekend, while Derby Girls were recovering from their first loss of the season. The second game was a low-scoring affair, with both teams playing exceptional defense and the Derby Girls not able to flex as much of their explosive power hitting. Bryant Express was the home team this time but they did not need the hammer, as they held on for a 7-6 win to claim the championship. A huge on-field celebration ensued and the Derby Girls were gracious in defeat.
“I’ve coached softball for 41 years and had Bryant Express for 34 years, and that Sunday absolutely ranks at the top of wins in my career,” said sponsor/manager Hayes Lemay. “Our ladies are just gamers. They never stop fighting. It takes a certain type of lady to play on this team. We are big on chemistry. We are FAMILY!”
The championship game featured an incredible scene, reminiscent of the first “Rocky” movie when Sylvester Stallone’s character had an eye swollen completely shut and told his trainer, “Cut me, Mick.” Only this play was even more amazing than the movie, as the athlete served as her own “Mick.”
While attempting to field a ball that bounced off the Green Monster on Fenway Field, Bryant Express outfielder Tawna Williams was hit square on the nose by the descending ball. Williams first picked up the ball and fired it back into the infield to keep the runner from advancing. As she laid on the ground with her nose bleeding profusely and broken in several places, Williams re-set the broken nose herself then stitched up the wound and bandaged it when she got back to the dugout.
“As soon as I re-set my nose, it started bleeding more,” said Williams. “I walked off the field to get cleaned up and Coach Dara Tyler asked if I was done, and supposedly I looked at her like she had lost her mind, and said ‘of course not.’ She told me to get back out there! I came up to hit the next inning and obviously didn’t hit that well the first at-bat after getting hit in the face, but I hit better and better the at-bats after that. I played 13 more innings after it happened, with both my nose and face continuing to bleed. I had great teammates and friends who helped re-bandage my injury every inning as well as giving me the support to keep fighting. I believe as a team we motivated each other to keep going.”
Williams finished the tournament and celebrated the upset victories with her teammates. A post-tournament trip to the hospital determined that surgery would be necessary to properly fix the injuries.
Tournament champion Bryant Express finished with a 7-1 record but only out-scored their opponents 111-83, an average of 3.5 runs per game. Runnerup Derby Girls finished with a 4-2 mark and out-scored their opponents 99-36, an average of 10.5 runs per game.
Smash It Sports finished in third place with a 3-2 record, while Enough Said took fourth with a 3-2 record. The B Team and Miken SSE tied for fifth place; Texas Sports and Famous Freaks tied for seventh; and Lady Ego, Lady Top Dog, Lad Brokers and Lady Steel all tied for ninth place.
Appropriately, Tawna Williams was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
“Tawna’s toughness out there was the toughest I’ve ever seen on a ball field, man or woman,” said Lemay. “Laying on the ground with blood spurting out of her broken nose, she reset her own nose and played 13 more innings of softball. She was not going to let her teammates down.”
Dara Tyler of Bryant Express was named the Outstanding Defensive Player of the tournament. Other Bryant Express players named to the All-Tournament team were Savannah Brown, Tammy Martinez, Brandi Clifton, Jess Tolbert and Carrie Kaberline.
Stefanie Watt of the Derby Girls was named the Outstanding Offensive Player of the tournament. Other Derby Girls named to the All-Tournament team were Dara Toman, Brooke Devader, Amanda Hollman and Megan Miller.
The rest of the All-Tournament team consisted of Ashley Burke, Colesa Lazar, Colena Lazar and Rachel Adaza, of Smash It Sports; Sirene Johnson, Taylor Johnson and Johanna Bohana, of Enough Said; Crystal Pendarvis and Tabatha Douberley, of Miken SSE; and Mariah Alvarez and Sharrell Harris, of The B Team.