Coach Tommy Morrison saw something he had not seen in the eight previous years he had led the Maryland District 7 team to the Big League Softball Eastern Regional tournament.
"It was the strongest pitching I've seen in the Eastern Regional since I've been there," Morrison said.
District 7's opponents had plenty of strong arms, and for the first time District 7 did not. Put the two together, and the team suffered its earliest exit from the postseason tournament.
District 7 lost four of its five round robin games and finished in fifth place. The top four teams advanced to a single-elimination tournament Thursday and Friday. Delaware, which lost to District 7 in the final each of the past two years, defeated Connecticut, 3-0, for the region title Friday.
"We didn't have it, and everyone else did," Morrison said of the pitching depth in the tournament. "Everyone except the host team had three or four quality pitchers. It's the best the region has had since we've been going to this."
District 7 had won the tournament seven of the previous eight years. It had not lost a round robin game since the first game of the 2001 tournament.
In past years, District 7 was able to eke out wins because it had one strong pitcher after another. There was no drop-off.
But after defeating the host team, Connecticut District 4 of West Haven, in the opener, 17-5, District 7 went on to lose three straight one-run games, including two in extra innings.
District 7 lost to the Connecticut state champion, 1-0, in nine innings Wednesday morning. La Plata graduate Carrie Higdon pitched a complete-game two-hitter, but Connecticut scored with two outs in the bottom of the ninth on an error and a single. District 7 managed only five hits and struck out 13 times.
After a 45-minute break, District 7 faced Pennsylvania. District 7 trailed 4-0 going into the top of the seventh inning, but it tied the game -- and had two runners thrown out at home -- that inning. St. Mary's Ryken graduate Kim Fowler, Westlake graduate Christine Shipyan and Westlake senior Megan Alford each had run-scoring hits.
That was typical of District 7's inconsistent hitting over the week.
"In order to make it with the pitching we had, we needed to really hit the ball," Fowler said. "We didn't do it often enough."
In the bottom of the 11th, Pennsylvania scored on a double, a wild pitch and a single.
"With each loss, it was kind of more disbelief," said Higdon, who had lost just two games in the previous two seasons with the District 7 team. "We always thought we'd come through in the regional. . . . The other teams are getting stronger. That's been very apparent to me."
District 7 had limited pitching because some players did not stay with the team for the postseason. The extra innings were a particularly tough blow.
Big League Softball has two rules limiting pitchers' work: They can throw a maximum of 10 innings per day, and if they throw more than four innings -- even one pitch into a fifth inning -- they cannot pitch the next day.
That meant Higdon, the team's ace, could throw only one inning against Pennsylvania and could not pitch in Thursday's decisive game against New Jersey, which could have sent District 7 to the semifinals. With only one, fatigued pitcher, District 7 lost, 12-3.
"The idea is that you have three or four pitchers, and you pitch them each three or four innings a day," said District 7 assistant coach Walt Fowler. "But if you're in a close game, you've got to throw your ace. . . . All those extra innings add up on you."
The bad news traveled fast. Less than 24 hours after the loss to New Jersey, Morrison said he had heard from players who did not play Big League this summer or who chose not to play on the postseason all-star team.
"The word that I got," Morrison said, "was that some of the girls who didn't play Big League this year are already saying they're going to play next year.
"We do need a full team commitment, and we didn't have that this year."