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Brakettes claim Invitational crown

It’s been five years since the top two women’s fastpitch softball teams last met on the diamond. But the wait ended last weekend in Henderson, N.V., as the Stratford Brakettes stormed out of the loser’s bracket to win six straight games and capture the title in the Fastpitch Championship Invitational at the Stephanie Lynne Craig softball complex.

The last two wins came against the powerful Southern California Hurricanes, who had sent the Brakettes into the loser’s bracket in first-round action Saturday morning by a 4-3 margin.

The Hurricanes, the two-time defending FCI champions, trailed 3-2 entering the top of the seventh before hitting two home runs to prevail.

Rachele Fico and Brandice Balschmiter made certain that would not happen again, as their pitching propelled the Brakettes (56-3) through the difficult loser’s bracket and games that were played in 100-plus degree heat.

The Brakettes won the decisive ‘if’ game 3-2 when Becca Carden broke a tie game with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Fico scattered four hits and the Brakettes crushed three homers in a 7-0 mercy-run rule game in the opener against the undefeated Hurricanes.

Balschmiter was the winning pitcher and Fico nailed down the save with relief help in the seventh. She got the final batter, leadoff hitter Hally Wilson, looking on a 1-2 changeup that froze her in the batter’s box.

Balschmiter had pitched a complete-game 5-0 win over the California Crusaders in the loser’s bracket final Sunday morning to begin the Brakettes surge to the title.

“It was a great effort by the entire team,” manager John Stratton said. “Playing against such a star-studded field and in the extreme heat made it an even more rewarding championship.

“This is on a par with some of the great comebacks in our history.”

Stratton put this championship on a par with those in 1973 (Orlando), 1983 (Salt Lake City) and 1991 (Decatur, Ill.), where the Brakettes had their backs against the wall and managed to eliminate the field, most of those teams from California as well.

The last time the Brakettes and Hurricanes had met came in the 2007 ASA Women’s Major in South Bend. The Brakettes won 5-0 in a pool play game.

They did not meet in 2008 when the Hurricanes won the rain-shortened tournament in Buffalo.

There has not been an ASA Women’s Major since then, as the Brakettes now participate in the Women’s Major Softball National Championship. The fourth annual event will be staged Aug. 9-12 at Frank DeLuca Hall of Fame Field and the Short Beach Rec complex.

The Brakettes will face the St. Louis Saints Tuesday at 7 p.m. and the CT Charmers on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in a pair of pre-WMS doubleheaders at DeLuca Field.

Tournament action begins Thursday with 11 games on tap at DeLuca and the Short Beach Rec Complex.

The complete tournament schedule may be found at brakettes.com.

In the final game on Sunday, Carden was the offensive catalyst as she figured in all three runs.

She tripled and scored on Carly Normandin’s sacrifice fly in the second inning. Her bases-loaded walk in the third gave the Brakettes a 2-0 lead.

The Hurricanes tied the score on home runs in the fourth and six innings.

Carden led off the Brakettes’ sixth with a home run off UCLA standout Ally Carda to snap the tie.

Fico then took the mound in the seventh and held the Hurricanes, who featured a Who’s Who from the Pac-10 Conference, including three Team USA players, on their roster.

Fico’s pitching and home runs from Stephanie Call (15th), Mandie Fishback (3rd) and Carden (8th) led a nine-hit attack against first-team NCAA All-America pitcher Jolene Henderson of California. Ashley Waters, Normandin and Carden all had two hits in the game.

In Sunday’s opener against the Crusaders, Balschmiter allowed four hits and struck out five. Denise Denis had two hits and Call blasted her 14th home run.

The pivotal contest in the tournament occurred late Saturday night, when the Brakettes rallied from a 4-0 deficit to beat the Corona Angels, runners-up by a 5-4 score to the Hurricanes in the recent California State tournament.

Fico, who won three games to go with her save, relieved Balschmiter after the Angels took an early 4-0 lead.

Denis and Mouse, who was the defensive standout in the tournament, both had two hits in the comeback victory.

In earlier Saturday action, the Brakettes crushed the Southern Cal Scorpians 12-1 in five innings as Denis had a double, triple, and two-run homer.

Sam Greiner (5-0) picked up the win in relief of Fico.

After losing to the Hurricanes, the Brakettes beat the Condors 5-1 with Fico picking up the win.

Balschmiter was the loser in the opening game against the Hurricanes. Call had a two-run home run and tournament MVP, catcher Alisa Heronema, had an inside-the-park home run as well.

Last Friday night the Brakettes, who went 7-1 in the tournament, scored an 8-0 mercy-rule win over the Condors behind Greiner’s solid mound effort.

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