VALRICO — A couple near misses in the past few seasons left the girls of Bloomingdale's 12U Softball All-Stars wanting more. Last season's loss in the state playoffs was the last straw for Madeline Pena and her teammates.
Since leaving the Little League umbrella, Bloomingdale won the district and state titles and will play in the Babe Ruth 12U World Series this weekend in Alachua.
“Last year we got so far, reaching the state semifinals and when we lost it was heartbreaking,” said Pena, a shortstop. “The main group has been together for a while, we know each other so well and this is something we've really wanted.”
For the 12U Softball squad, the drive to win has led not just to success, but to overwhelming success. Since the regular season ended and 13 players were selected from the league's four teams, the club — which has dubbed itself the Blaze — has been on a tear, outscoring opponents 114-5 in eight games across the district and state tournaments.
“We gained a lot of experience last year and a lot of these girls play together on our travel team as well,” head coach DJ Pena said. “As mainly a group of 11-year-olds we played really well together in Little League, and this year all of these girls have put it together.”
Pena, along with his assistant coaches Dan Cooper, Bryon LoPreste and Rich Luppino, have loved watching the team's runaway success, but the head coach said he's been letting his players know that at the world series, the talent of the competition is about to take a big uptick.
“It's been a very determined team wanting to get to a championship,” he said. “We hope that continues, but I don't want to jinx us, because all of these teams are champions and it could go the other way.”
The pitching staff consisting of Emma Cooper, Ashley Ullom, Kacey Fultz and Maddie Droz has posted five shutouts this postseason, while the offense has scored in double-digits in seven of eight wins, including ending each of those seven early by mercy-rule. Of the five runs allowed this postseason, just one was an earned run.
The offense is keyed from the top of the lineup where Lindsey Harper, Pena, Kaia LoPreste, Bailee Leistl and Jada Smallwood have gotten things started all season. Taylor Bryers, Kailey Harrigan, Trinity Howard and Kelly Swank round out the roster.
For Pena, the team's success has as much to do with the attitude and closeness of a group that has mainly been together as all-stars since they were 9 years old.
“We know each other so well and over the last few years, we've all become best friends,” she said. “At first it takes a little bit for all of us to gel together, but then after a while it's as if we've known each other forever.”
“We all cheer for each other. We really are like a group of best friends.”
The Bloomingdale All-Stars will open the Babe Ruth World Series on Friday at 12:30 p.m. against the New England champions and will face Lodi, Calif., that evening at 8.