Perhaps it was the hand-decorated T-shirts they crafted in Florida or the good-luck ribbons they wound into their hair in southern Virginia.
More likely, it was the weeks of relentless practice and the pure heart that made it possible for the 11- and 12-year-old players on the McLean Little League softball all-star team to get another crack at the Little League Softball World Series, the premier competition for preteens in the sport. Their championship game begins at 9:30 Eastern time tonight in Portland, Ore., and will be shown on the ESPN2 cable channel.
"This tournament is great, and I love softball, and I never thought I would get so far," said a breathless Jessie Straub, 12, the team's third base player, by cell phone from Portland. "All the excitement from the games, hearing all the fans cheering for you, when the ball comes to you. I just love it."
This is the second time the team has reached the finals of the World Series, an international event with teams from as far away as Poland and the Philippines.
Last summer, the McLean girls surprised the junior softball world and themselves by rocketing to the finals, becoming the first group from Virginia or the Washington area to advance so far in the decades-old competition.
The girls and their entourage of about 30 parents and well-wishers who followed them to Oregon are experiencing a predictable mix of adrenaline-fueled excitement and pregame jitters, heightened yesterday by a viewing of a tape of Tuesday's semifinal game against the Evangeline, La., team.
"When you're playing in the World Series, it feels like it's just another softball game," said Megan Sullivan, 13, last year's third baseman. "But when you're watching it on TV, and everyone's talking about it, then it's like, oh, wow."
Back home, the enormity of the girls' accomplishment has the tight-knit McLean Little League community bursting with pride.
About 1,100 youngsters ages 7 through 16, 225 of them girls, play baseball and softball through McLean Little League. The program is nearly 50 years old.
It has generated a devoted following of families, including the dozens of parents -- some of whom took as many as 10 days off work -- who accompanied their daughters to tournaments across the country this summer.
Sue Giaquinto, whose 13-year-old daughter, Madeleine, played in the World Series last year, went to Portland again this summer with 11-year-old Sophie, who is on this year's team. Daughter Olivia, 7, also plays softball through McLean Little League.
The family recently moved to Indian Head but commuted this summer as much as 90 minutes each way to McLean so Sophie could attend practice daily.
The family plans to move back to McLean in the fall.
"With three girls in the program, it's become very special," Giaquinto said. "We have lived in a lot of different places and have decided to settle on McLean, and the program is just part of that."
Though the McLean all-stars lost in last year's final, 18-5, this year's team -- made up almost entirely of a new group of girls -- is considered well matched against its rival tonight from Orange, Conn., and could go home with the title.
"Last year, it was very much a surprise, and it was very new. That certainly made it very exciting, but it also made it rather unpredictable," said Jamie Loving, last year's team manager, who has been watching the team's ascent from home. The Connecticut team "has never been there before, so we have a bit of an edge. I expect it to be a close game either way."
Tonight, dozens of parents, fans and former players plan to watch the game and cheer on the team over pasta at an Italian restaurant in McLean.