When Monica Gonzales first saw the Damascus Flames women's 20-and-under fast-pitch softball team play in July, she had mixed feelings.

"To be honest, they didn't look real good out there," she said. "But they looked real relaxed and I wanted to play without the pressure involved."

Gonzales, a former All-Met third baseman at Wootton High, signed on with the first-year team. She has not regretted the decision.

This weekend, 33 of the best women's open teams in the nation will be in Phoenix for the American Softball Association national Class A tournament. The Flames, who did not know what to expect of their first season together, definitely did not anticipate being at a national tournament by summer's end.

But as the double-elimination tournament begins today, the Flames are in Phoenix and feel good about their prospects. The past few weeks have given the team surging confidence.

"We thought we would win a couple games in the regionals and then go home," said pitcher Kristyn Abel, 20, a former All-Met at Madison High now pitching for the University of Virginia. "But we just kept on winning. It was a big surprise."

Abel, who now lives near Annapolis, has not gone through the rough times with the Flames. However, she came aboard at the right time and fueled the Flames momentum.

Four weeks ago, Gonzales, the team's third baseman who had never played with Abel but had faced her many times, asked her to join the team. At the time, the Flames had a thin pitching staff made up of Amy Meisinger, who went to Oakland Mills and is now at Villanova, and Marilyn Naas of Walter Johnson. When the hard-throwing Abel joined the team for the Guy Mason tournament in Northwest Washington, the Flames seemed to find the ingredient they had been missing.

Abel and Meisinger were the keys as the Flames won the ASA Women's Class A Central Atlantic Region championship. The players went into that tournament, which awarded the winner a berth to the national tournament, expecting the weekend to be their last together for this summer. But four victories later, the Flames were preparing for a trip to Phoenix.

"We could see it all coming together," said Coach Frank Glaspell, whose daughter Lora starts at shortstop. "We solidified the roster by early July. We had a lot of quality players -- although none have ever been entered in this kind of play. We are very relaxed and we just don't have any big expectations."

The key to the Flames rests with pitching and defense.

In the opener of the regionals, Meisinger pitched a two-hitter in a 1-0 win over Slatedale (Pa.) as Gonzales knocked in the only run. Later that day, Abel threw 11 shutout innings before the Flames scored on an error to beat C&D Sports (Pa.), 1-0.

In the third game, Meisinger allowed four hits in a 3-1 win that earned a matchup with Rosedale (Baltimore) in the championship game.

Again it was pitching and a strong defense that was the difference. Abel finally gave up a run, but she helped with her bat, driving in Gonzales with the winning run in a 2-1 victory.

In the 29 innings of the tournament, the Flames scored a total of seven runs and hit a collective .227. That hardly seems enough to win four games, but it was because the Flames allowed a total of only two runs.

Just getting into the regional tournament required considerable work -- much of it off the field by team founder John Ferguson, a Damascus safety engineer.

Ferguson has financed three area girls fast-pitch teams. He built the Flames in response to the ASA change that eliminated 19-and-under teams and created a new 18-and-under division. This put several talented area college freshmen and high school seniors, who would have played for 19-and-under teams this summer, in limbo.

The rule change "knocked out a group of young ladies who would otherwise be playing," Ferguson said. "We had tryouts and word just spread around. Most of the girls did their own recruiting."

Ferguson knew some players who had been with the Lewistown Tigers and the Maryland Patriots, both 18-and-under teams, the past few summers. Getting them together quickly showed that talented players still need a concept of playing together before they could be successful.

"In the beginning, we were taking our licks pretty bad," said Ferguson.

The Flames played in the Guy Mason League against good competititon. They went 3-9, but Ferguson said he was not disappointed because the team showed it could be competitive.

In Phoenix, the Flames, with an average age of 19 years old, will meet teams that Ferguson expects will average about age 24.

"We're hoping to be more than a Cinderella team," Frank Glaspell said. "Our first goal is to win the first game -- to make it to Saturday. We feel we have a shot to be one of the last six teams. Maybe we're a little naive, but we didn't know what to expect in the regionals either."

The Flames improved pitching has coincided with solidified defense. Catcher Wendy Gill (Paint Branch High, Catholic University), Gonzales, Lora Glaspell (Middletown, Lock Haven), second baseman Michele Rasberry (Walkersville, Shippensburg) and first baseman Jennifer Hoffman (Seneca Valley, Lynchburg College) are the infield starters.

Hitting has been the glaring weakness. Gonzales hit .308 and Abel hit .286 with three of the team's six RBI in the regional tournament, but that was enough to make them the team's top two hitters.

"A one-run lead is kind of a relief in this kind of play," said Frank Glaspell before the Flames left for Phoenix. "Hitting is one of our weak points, but we have been working on it all week."

The Flames success, coming so soon after their early-season struggles, has created a hungry team.

"No team I have ever played on has wanted to win this bad," Gonzales said. "I never dreamed this would happen. I thought we would be the Bad News Bears from the start, but we really came together. I think we'll do well. If everyone goes out and plays hard, we could be unstoppable."