Home cooking and familiar pillows may be the keys to success for the 19-and-under Prince William Breeze softball team when it competes against 80 teams from more than a dozen states at this week's PONY Softball National Tournament of Champions, which will be Tuesday through Sunday in Sterling.
"Being close to home was crucial for us when we won it two years ago," said Breeze Coach Pete Zier, whose team captured the 16-and-under division of the 1997 PONY Nationals in Sterling. "The kids came home every night, ate mama's cooking and slept in their own beds as opposed to eating at McDonald's and staying in a hotel."
The Breeze opted not to defend their PONY title last summer, when the tourney was held in Indiana, choosing instead to play in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association tournament in Sterling, where they finished fourth.
Embracing the tourney's return to Sterling, Prince William is preparing for its first appearance in the 19-and-under division by playing in front of 150 to 200 college coaches at the Carolina Cardinal Showcase Tournament in Rock Hill, S.C., this weekend. The Breeze were scheduled to play five games Friday and yesterday before returning home this morning and beginning round-robin play at PONY Nationals on Tuesday.
"These girls are what you call tournament tough," Zier said. "With the heat they play in and all of the other factors they have to deal with, they always seem to survive."
The short recovery period from South Carolina, Zier said, "doesn't worry me at all."
The Breeze entered this weekend with a 19-5 overall record and first- or second-place finishes at four of the five tournaments they have played this summer. They captured the National Softball Association state championship in Salem last month.
Payton Nash, a recent Gar-Field Senior High School graduate who has committed to Radford, was the team's leading hitter entering Friday's games, with a .400 batting average and team-high 13 RBI. Nash splits time at catcher with Alicia Lisanty, who played at Osbourn High School.
Julie Englehart, a rising junior at Brentsville District High School, is hitting .385 this summer while providing the Breeze with a true utility player. She has played in both the infield and outfield, is 1-0 as a pitcher and helped Prince William win the NSA state tournament as the catcher when Nash and Lisanty were out of town.
"She plays wherever we need her," Zier said. "To be that flexible at this level is great. But she doesn't just fill in. She really plays these positions and plays them all well."
Outfielders Jen Clawson (Hylton) and Katie Fricke (Gar-Field) are tied for the team lead, with 20 runs scored. They are batting .339 and .361, respectively, as the first two hitters in Prince William's batting order ahead of Englehart, who bats third. Osbourn Park High School rising senior Chris Batson (.314) usually hits cleanup and plays in the middle infield with Bethany Piazza (.313), a Woodbridge Senior High School graduate who has signed with Mount Olive (N.C.) College.
Zier's daughter, Osbourn Park rising junior Ashley Zier, and her former Yellow Jacket teammate Stephanie Garman, who has committed to Virginia Tech, play both outfield and first base for the Breeze. Potomac High School's Cathie Hernandez plays third base.
"She is our motivator," Zier said of Hernandez. "She leads the cheers; she leads the songs--she is Chatty Cathie."
Potomac rising senior Teresa Brewer (6-2, 1.71 ERA), who fired a no-hitter July 10 in the Fireball Tournament at Virginia Beach--she was one batter away from completing a perfect game--leads a pitching staff that includes Woodbridge's Bevin Gekosky (5-1, 0.84) and Hylton's Falon Twitchell (7-2, 2.02).
"These girls have always been a close-knit group," Zier said. "They genuinely like each other. It is not just a ball thing. . . . They really enjoy each other's company, and that is the key to their success. There is no arguing. They are all buds."
Lisanty, the only graduated senior on the squad who has yet to make a college commitment, received a very important e-mail message last week. The softball coach at Coastal Carolina, one of the schools Lisanty is considering attending in the fall, informed her that she would be in attendance at Rock Hill this weekend to watch her play.
The timing couldn't be better for Lisanty, who is coming off her best tournament of the summer, batting .400 in Virginia Beach two weeks ago.
Lisanty, who battled back from the rotator cuff surgery she underwent before her junior season, also has visited SUNY-Stony Brook and was approached at the Fireball Tournament by coaches from Virginia Wesleyan, which can't extend athletic scholarships but is considering her for an academic scholarship.
"This is why a lot of people don't make a decision until two weeks before they have to leave for college," Lisanty said. "You get so much more exposure during the summer."
If Prince William reaches the semifinals at PONY Nationals this week, Fricke can try to win another base-running title. The competition, which tests runners' speed between first base and home plate, is open to players on the teams that advance to the final four. Fricke won the base-running contest at the 1997 PONY tourney and at last summer's NFCA tournament.
Zier recalled Fricke's aggressiveness on the base paths during a game at the Fireball Tournament. "Katie was on second, and Julie Englehart dropped a bunt that was fielded cleanly, and the throw to first was clean. Katie went from second to home, and there was not even a play at the plate.
"She is not only fast, she is sneaky. She takes the extra base when she can, and the second the pitcher puts her head down or takes her eye off her, she is gone. Eight out of 10 times when she does things on base, she gets away with them."