Heat catch fire at Nationals

Team proves they belong among the best in the nation

One month ago, the Hood River Heat fast-pitch softball team thought their season was over. After practicing and playing in tournaments since April, the girls were perfectly content to enjoy the rest of their summer vacation.

They already had a lot to be proud of, winning second at the Oregon state tournament and placing ninth at the American Softball Association Regionals in Seattle.

The coaches were equally proud of the team's accomplishÿments, but were also ready to set down their equipment bags and lineup cards until next season.

Then the phone rang.

"You're going to Nationals," the voice on the other said. "Can you be in Spokane by Monday?"

How could anyone say no? To be included among the top 48 teams west of the Misÿsissippi was a true honor, and despite having little time to prepare, the players scrambled to get ready for this once in a lifetime opportunity.

First they had to secure the funds make their dream a reality. With the help of Mike and Shawna Caldwell, the team held a fundraising dinner at Stonehedge Gardens in Hood River the day before leaving for Spokane, and raised approximately $600 to pay for hotels, meals and team expenses.

After a travel day Monday, the Heat began the preliminary seedÿing round Tuesday, July 31 against the San Diego Slammers. The game was close throughout, but San Diego came away with a 5-4 victory. Next up was another California team, the Valley Magic. Pitcher Talia Hinman shut down the opposition and spurred a 3-1 Heat win.

Hinman picked up where she left off in the elimination round, pitching the team to a shutout win over the Spokane Extreme in the first game. The offense took much of the pressure off Hinman as it exploded for 11 runs in the rout.

Next up was a familiar foe, the Oregon state champion Sherwood Fireballs. In another battle to the finish -- this time into extra inÿnings -- Sherwood prevailed with a 6-5 win and eventually took third place in the tournament.

The loss forced the Heat into the loser's bracket against their first-round opponent, the San Dieÿgo Slammers. This time Hood Rivÿer taught the Slammers what it's like to lose a close game. Clinging to a 3-2 lead in the late innings, leftfielder Bethany Hoikka made a running backhand grab to ice the victory.

But back-to-back nailbiters proved to be too much as the Heat conceded to the Tacoma Fun Magÿic 3-0 in their final game to finish the tournament with three wins and three losses. Their 25th place finish in a field of 48 teams also proved that they belonged at Naÿtionals all along.

"We were right in it the entire tournament," assistant coach Dale Hinman said, "but a few breaks went against us. If we had beaten Sherwood, we would have been in really good shape."

Other stars at Nationals were Michelle Connors, who had nuÿmerous timely hits to extend inÿnings; third baseman Ashley Carter and shortstop Lisa Perry, who dazzled the crowd with their defensive wizardry; and the entire group of outfielders, whose strong defense helped Talia Hinman get through 40 innings in five days.

"We're lucky to have the same nucleus back next season," Dale Hinman said. "This season made us really strong as a unit."

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