Tim Sanders wanted his Winfield Sting 12-under travel softball team to do well in USSSA Class C tournaments so USSSA would move it up to Class B. He believed that stronger competition would improve the girls' play so they would be better-prepared for high school softball in a year or two.
They did win at the C level and moved up, but they quickly found that the higher road was also the rougher road. They learned that they were being tested not only on the field but also in their ability to handle the strain of losing as they struggled to improve.
The Sting team was formed two years ago as a 10-under travel squad. It played in tournaments and also in the Class C Central Maryland League.
It never finished higher than third in a tournament over its first two seasons.
In March's Central Maryland League Early Bird Tournament in Hampstead, they swept all four games, outscoring their opponents 57-13.
"Our pitching, hitting and defense were all good. The other teams made more errors than us, and we played solid softball. It was fun to watch," Sanders said.
They also swept the USSSA May Madness tournament which was played May 6-7 on their home diamonds at Mayeski Park. The competition was stronger, and the scores were closer. But the result was the same.
Sanders recalled the intensity his girls showed on the tournament's second day when they felt the championship was theirs.
"Those girls had a look in their eyes like nobody could beat them," Sanders said. "The pitching was outstanding, and that carried us. We got a few key hits, the other teams made a mistake here and there, and that did it."
When it was over, the Sting was 5-0, winning by a composite score of 39-9. Impressive numbers.
USSSA thought so, too. So, it sent Sanders an email.
"It said they were moving us up to Class B. We were excited, but I felt they were moving us up too soon," Sanders said. "We had wanted to play one more C tournament to see where we were. But now we could only play in Class B or open tournaments if we played USSSA."
He decided to go along with the change and not schedule any other C tournaments lest it clutter the schedule. Anyhow, his girls were still in the Central Maryland League where they were rolling along, undefeated. The coaches told the girls that the competition would be tougher in B tournaments.
"We tried to prepare them for what they'd face, but I think we probably scared them," Sanders said, looking back.
In any event, the Sting got stung in its first B tournament, the June 3-4 Ace of Diamonds in Columbia. Their opponents were a whole lot better. The Sting lost all four contests and scored only four runs the whole time.
"The pitching was stronger than our hitters were used to, and the other teams just didn't make any mistakes. They also capitalized on every mistake we made. It was a real eye-opener for us," Sanders said.
A couple of weeks later, they played the Charm City Challenge,again in Columbia. Things were still rugged, and they were 0-3-1. Sanders though, felt they were a little more competitive than they had been in May.
"We led until the last inning of the (tie) game but they came back to tie us," Sanders said. "In the final game, we had two on and two out in the last inning but couldn't get the hit. We lost it 5-4. ... But we were scoring more runs (19), we were more aggressive on the bases."
Two weekends ago they went to Columbia again for the Blue-Gray Summer Shoot-out and went 1-2-1.
"We won the second game on Saturday 6-2. The girls were so excited that you would have thought they won the whole tournament," Sanders said.
Sanders says players were becoming mentally stronger and more mature, and that was an important part of their improvement.
"They stayed focused the whole game. They didn't get upset when they were down a run or two. Once they started controlling their emotions, we got better," the coach said. "They started showing more confidence. They supported each other when someone struggled.
"They wouldn't let somebody get down and the camaraderie grew. Now they believe they belong in this division."
However, just as they began feeling more comfortable in the division, the season ended.
Now, the girls and their coaches look forward to next season when they become a 14-under team. Despite his girls' struggle this season, Sanders has the same plan-start them in Class C and hope they are moved up to B if they do well enough.
"The following year, they will try out for high school, so we want them to be ready," the coach said.
However, there is still a small matter remaining from this year-this weekend's Central Maryland League championship tournament. The Sting finished the regular season in first with a 17-0-1 record, and their coach hopes to maintain this year's unbeaten streak against Class C competition.
He's not interested in merely being more competitive in a losing cause. No moral victories this time.