Herb Eyler's first championship in six years of coaching in the Westminster Jaycees Girls Softball League is something he will never forget.
But he will remember more than his Cougars simply finishing first in June's ages 8 to 18 Junior Division's postseason tournament. If you talk to Eyler, who is also the league president, you realize that he will also remember the dedication his girls had to their team, and to each other, and also a focus on winning that overcame everything, particularly in June's postseason tournament. There, they had to take six consecutive games to win the title — and did.
You wouldn't expect that from kids this age. Most were in high school, where jobs and social lives often overshadow commitment to softball. There are only five teams in the division, and coaches often have to forfeit because not enough girls show up.
These girls not only showed up; they played with an intensity that surprised their coach.
"They always let each other know that they had their backs. If someone was down, her teammates picked her up," Eyler noted.
There would also be other strengths. The defense was outstanding, particularly in the outfield.
"Toward the end of the year, the outfield was unbeatable," he said.
The hitting was good throughout the year, and that also helped.
The Cougars had a couple of rough stretches, and the team was up-and-down. But the girls' resiliency always brought them back. Their coach recalled one bad stretch, having to face the first-place Hawks.
"I told them not to worry but to go out and play the best they could. Then they went out and played one of the best games they played all year and tied the first-place team. That was a big game," he said.
They finished the regular season in third place with a 13-6-2 record. Eyler thought his team had a chance at the title.
"I told them we had a shot at the championship round. If the girls fired on all cylinders, we could win the championship," he said.
Game 1 saw the Cougars jump out to a 5-0 lead, only to be caught by the Marlins. The No. 2 Marlins, who gave up the fewest runs in the league this season, then shut out the Cougars the rest of the way and scored two late runs to win, 10-8.
Cougars pitcher Megan Scocco struck out five with her tough arc pitch. Teammates Sarah Metcals and Julia Eyler were each 3-for-3. The girls were now in the losers' bracket after only one game, and a long road lay ahead.
"I told them that this was a tough loss. They would have to battle their way into the championship round, but I also told them I was confident they could do it. I was confident they were ready for the challenge," Eyler said.
They topped the Aces, 11-3 in their next game. Scocco again struck out five, and Amy Serio paced the Cougar offense by going 3-for-4 with two RBIs.
Scocco was again mystifying with her pitching in Game 3, an 8-0 shutout of the Flyers. She struck out five for the third time in a row. Metcals was 3-for-3. This was the first of four games the Cougars would play on a hot and sticky June 13.
The next game they faced the Marlins, who had beaten them in Game 1.
"I said, 'Let's get revenge and beat them at their own game. We have to get on them early and hold them.'"
His kids would beat the Marlins at their own game by flashing the leather and winning, 5-3. Outfielders Shyanne Gordon and Megan Beares made numerous tough catches to shut down Marlins rallies.
Beares was also 2-for-3, plating the winning run in the fourth inning. No team scored after that. The win put the Cougars in the championship round against the Hawks, who hadn't lost a game this season. But the Cougars handled them easily, 13-3.
Metcals and Scocco each went 4-for-4. Gordon was also 4-for-4 and drove in five runs. Taylor Wood went 3-for-4 with two RBIs, and Kylie Severn, 2-for-5. Jordan Ostrow was 2-for-3 with an RBI, and Lauren Felter, 1-for-3 with an RBI.
The first four hitters in the Cougars lineup went a combined 14-for-16.
"(Winning like that) was a huge shock to everybody. Nobody saw it coming. They were a veteran team with only one new player, and they'd led the league in runs scored," Eyler said.
That left each team with one loss and forced the "if" game. There was a 20-minute break between games as parents hustled off to any place nearby that had water because there was none left at Westminster Jaycees Park.
As his depleted troops rested the last few minutes in the high 80s heat and humidity, Eyler gave one final pep talk.
"I told them, 'This is your knock-out game.' I asked each girl, 'Are you ready to leave it all out on the field?' and each girl said, 'Yes,'" Eyler said.
The Hawks, though, led 3-0 after four innings and still held a 3-2 lead in the top of the seventh and final frame. But the Cougars had one last spurt left in them. Maddie Smith singled home the tying run and Eyler singled home another to put her team up, 4-3. Then, Morgan Click and Beares each got RBI hits to pad the lead to 6-3.
Scocco retired the Hawks on three straight pop-outs in the home half, and the Cougars were champs.
Eyler, assistant coach Rob Smith and a couple of other assistants informally picked Metcals as the Cougars' hitting MVP of the tournament and Scocco as the team's defensive MVP.
Eyler recalled the post-game celebration.
"The girls all ran to the mound and went nuts. So did my coaches and I," Eyler said with a laugh. "I had tears in my eyes to be honest with you. It was a great year."