Doug Talley, who coaches the 14-under Freedom Firebirds travel softball team, made a prediction when the season started.
"I told [the girls] they would go deep in at least one tournament," he recounted.
Well, the girls did go deep in one tournament — all the way to the end, actually.
In late June at Winfield's Mayeski Park, his Firebirds swept five games to win the Central Maryland League's 14-under postseason softball tournament championship.
Talley didn't have overly high hopes when this season began. He did have nine players back from the previous year. But his girls had also moved up from their Class C, 12-under age bracket of 2015 to Class B, 14-under.
"If we played .500 in 14-under, Class B, we felt that would have a good season. Actually, we were all [of ages] 13-under except for two girls who are 12-under. And [yet] we did this," Talley said, still sounding a bit amazed.
They had already succeeded, big time, as a 12-under team the previous year. The Firebirds finished second out of roughly 30 teams in last year's USSSA's Class C World Series. They were second in CML's 2015 Early Bird Tournament and then won another 12-under tournament in May.
And this spring and summer, his girls did everything he'd hoped at the higher level-and more. Their 24-21 overall record exceeded his goal of .500, and the CML championship blew it away.
However, he and assistant coaches Keith Brooks, Kristy Malloy and Frank Vintz had wanted the girls to have a challenging tournament schedule this year, and that is what they got. Their girls often struggled in those softball meets. But Talley had expected rough going, and he wasn't dissatisfied with the results.
"The best we did was a fifth-place finish in one tournament," he said. "But we won some games in pool play and a few on Sundays in single elimination. We played very respectably."
He was pleased that the girls always kept their heads up, even when things didn't go their way.
"They had a lot of faith," he said. "They took their lumps, and that was a lot for the young people. But they never quit, and it finished up pretty well for us. We showed improvement in every part of the game."
That improvement was very evident to their CML opponents. Freedom went 8-2 in the CML regular season, losing only to Charles Carroll and the Finksburg Lady Lions.
There were several reasons for their success.
"The top half of the lineup really had power. But there were also a lot of role players who played small ball, and we had a lot of team speed.," Talley said. ""They were also very versatile. I told them they needed to play multiple positions. We had an outfielder who could catch and a catcher who could play the outfield. That was a key to our success. Everybody on this team could play a second position almost as well as she could play her primary position."
By the tme the postseason tournament arrived, Talley felt confident. He knew going in that his girls had benefited from their spring semester at softball's school of hard knocks.
"I thought we'd do well. Our resume of games and tough schedule would be decisive," he said.
They opened against the Olney Cougars. Sydney Malloy drove in Carly Brooks with the go -ahead run to break a 2-2 tie in the third inning, and the Firebirds stayed ahead to win, 5-4. Mallory Phillips went 2-for-3 with an RBI for the winners. Starter Kylie Newburn pitched four innings to get the win.
Freedom topped the Catonsville Chaos, 8-3, in Game Two. Firebirds starter and winner Makayla Lowery fanned nine in five innings and allowed only two earned runs.
She got a lot of support.Caroline Mastria was 2-for-2 with a walk and a run scored. Liz Smolen was 2-for-2 with two RBIs. Sarah Phelps was 1-for-2 with a walk and two RBIs. Newburn helped her own cause by going 2-for-2.
Freedom got revenge for its regular-season loss to the Lady Lions by thumping them, 8-2, in Game Three. The Firebirds broke open a close contest with six fourth-inning runs and coasted from there.
Starter and winner Newburn went 5 1/3 innings, allowing three hits and no earned runs. Mastria went 3-for-4 to lead a balanced batting attack in which six players drove in runs. Emily Stillings was 2-for-4 and Maggie Heffler, 2-for-2.
Freedom continued its run in the next game when it rolled up a 5-0 early lead over the Maryland Mystics en route to a 5-2 win over that Frederick County team.
Lisa Scanlon had two triples and an RBI. Brooks was 2-for-2.
The final game matched two Carroll teams with Freedom facing the North Carroll-based Hotshots Black Lightning. But the Firebirds beat that squad too. The winners scored five runs in the first inning, three in the fourth, and cruised to a 12-3 victory for the league championship.
Lowery, named the outstanding pitcher in the 2015 USSSA 12-under World Series, was an easy winner in this one. She pitched the first five innings, allowing only two runs and striking out four. Alexa Vintz was 2-for-3 with two RBIs and a run scored for the winners.
The champs have been taking it easy of late. However, fall practice begins soon, and the Firebirds coaching staff wants to get back to work.
Talley is especially eager, saying "we want to hit the ground running this fall and get back on the field."
But he looks beyond this fall. This season, these young girls beat a set of opponents a year or more older than they. Not surprisingly, their head coach thinks they are a special group — a group that will make its mark by the time their diamond careers are over.
"The sky's the limit, and they can go as far as they want to go," Talley declared.