TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — After 154 professional softball games spanning nearly three months, the NPF’s 13th season came down to just seven innings on Tuesday night at Rhoads Stadium on the campus of the University of Alabama. And the outcome—a 2–1 title-clinching victory by the third-seeded Chicago Bandits over their rivals, the top-seeded USSSA Pride, in the decisive Game 3 of the series—was not the one most people familiar with the league had expected going into this week’s NPF Championship Series.
The Pride, the league’s regular-season champions, dominated in their eighth campaign in existence. With a roster that is undoubtedly the most stacked in the league, they reached the 40-win mark for the first time in franchise history and finished the season with a 40–15 record.
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But USSSA was not the team hoisting the Cowles Cup on Tuesday. Instead, it was Chicago—a squad that went 23–25 in the regular season—that dogpiled under a sky of red, white and blue confetti following the final out.
“It’s our first win streak in almost four weeks,” Bandits head coach Mike Steuerwald told Excelle Sports after leading his team to its second straight and fourth-ever title. “We press the right buttons at times, and somedays, it was like there was no button to press with this group. We pitch great some days, and then the next day, it was like we were a completely different team. We didn’t know, really, what we were going to get today from everyone.”
But what Steuerwald could presume was that he was going to get a gutsy effort from starter and fourth-year NPF pitcher Angel Bunner, who defeated a lefty-ace opponent for the second time in the tournament when she knocked off the Keilani Ricketts-led Pride on Tuesday. The southpaw, who missed the 2015 NPF season after being released by the Pennsylvania Rebellion, was signed by the Bandits as a free agent in July to fill some pitching gaps on the team’s roster following the departure of longtime-ace Monica Abbott to the Scrap Yard Dawgs.
“Signing her was probably a big key to turning our season around,” Steuerwald said of Bunner, who pitched six innings and allowed just one run against the Pride on Tuesday. “Obviously, losing Monica [Abbott] last year is a big dent to your pitching staff, and we weren’t playing good softball at the time [of Bunner’s signing], so we needed to do something.”
And just two months after the unexpected signing, it was the 26-year-old Bunner—an Auburn graduate who went 1–3 with a 3.55 ERA in the regular season—who was thrust into her team’s most important game of the season.
“I’m not usually nervous, but when I got here today, I’m not going to lie, I was nervous,” admitted Bunner, who was living with her parents in Florida when she received a call from the Bandits in June. “But [with the] group of pitchers standing behind me, the first thing they said to me when we all got here was, ‘No matter what happens, we all got your back.’ So going into the game, I just used that mentality that if I got in trouble, I knew that there was another pitcher coming in behind me.”
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From its onset, the game was every bit as close as one would expect a contest between two rivals to be. Despite threatening in the first two innings, neither team was able to push a run across until the third, when back-to-back solo blasts from All-NPF selection Taylor Edwards—her second in as many days—and eventual tournament MVP Brittany Cervantes—who hit a team-best .500 with three home runs in the postseason—put the Bandits ahead, 2–0.
The Pride battled right back, though, as Lauren Chamberlain started the USSSA half of the fourth when she beat out a ground ball up the middle for a single. But the potential rally was stymied when Chelsea Goodacre lined out to second and Chamberlain was doubled off at first. The mistake proved costly, as Hallie Wilson followed with a double and Kirsti Merritt then recorded an infield hit, which put runners on the corners. Bunner stranded them when she induced a groundout off the bat of Sierra Romero to keep the Pride scoreless.
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The only run Bunner afforded came in the bottom of the fifth when the league’s two-time defending Player of the Year Kelly Kretschman came to life, blasting a solo home run for just her second hit of the postseason.
“To win championships, you have to have not only a great team, good hitting, great pitching, you have to have some luck too,” said Kretschman, who captured the first-ever Triple Crown in league history this season. “Balls didn’t go our way. Little crazy things happened. That’s just the way softball is.”
Bunner shut the Pride down in the sixth before the tournament’s star reliever Shelby Turnier entered in the seventh to close the door on USSSA’s title hopes. She subsequently induced a pop-up off the bat of Megan Wiggins to end the game, which left Kretschman waiting on deck.
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“If you truly love competing, you love moments like that,” first-year Pride head coach Lonni Alameda said after the game. “The losing sits in your gut for a while, but you’ll want to be back out there next summer, and this team will. We’ll be in the championship and hopefully those line drives fall for us and we’re getting confetti in our hair.”
But for now, it’s the Bandits who will reign supreme over the NPF for another season, proving the old adage true: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.