Filipinas Big League Softball World Series champions
The team that almost did not make it to the tournament for lack of funds ended its campaign in a blaze of glory.
And in a tribute to its compatriots back home, the team said it was dedicating its victory to the tens of thousands of Filipinos suffering from the onslaught of devastating floods.
Conquering challenges both on and off the field, Team Manila captured the Big League Softball World Series title on Wednesday (Thursday morning in Manila) with a powerful 14-2 victory over the United States-West bet, Westchester, California, at Vanderberg Park in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The victory was a fairy tale ending for the Manila girls, who were doubtful starters for the
16-18 age-group tournament a few weeks ago as team officials scrounged for resources to pay for their tickets to the United States.
“We’re happy all our hard work paid off,” said pitcher Rizza Bernardino, who held the opposing team to just five hits in five innings in the final.
“It all boiled down to the players’ determination to win,” team manager Rafael “Che” Borromeo, who is the Manila Little League president, told the Inquirer over the phone.
It was the Philippines’ second title in World Series tournaments, which is spread over four age groups and played in different cities in the United States.
The Philippines’ first title came in the girls’ 13-14 age group, or the Junior League division, courtesy of Bacolod City, in Kirkland, Washington, in 2003.
Breath of fresh air
It was also a breath of fresh air for the Philippines, which had failed to make its mark in the London Olympics and which was ravaged by floods the past few days.
Manila coach Ana Santiago said the win was dedicated to the flood victims. “This championship is dedicated to Filipinos who are experiencing tough times because of the flood,” she said.
The team, made up of varsity standouts from Adamson, University of Santo Tomas, University of the East and Polytechnic University of the Philippines, had been worried when it heard about the floods.
Manila had been to the finals in three of the last four years, including last year, when the Philippine Daily Inquirer helped raise funds for their trip. The girls came to grief in those trips to the championship match.
But there was no heartbreak this time. Wielding hot bats, the Filipinos peppered the California squad with 14 hits on their way to an abbreviated victory. Owing to the “mercy” rule, matches are stopped if the team is ahead by more than 10 runs after five innings.
Championship game jitters, which hounded Manila in the last two years as they suffered one-sided losses, no longer existed this time—a remarkable feat considering the team had nine newcomers in the lineup.
Display of power
Team Manila scored early with three runs at the top of the first inning, before adding four in the second. A five-run binge in the fifth all but wrapped up the crown for them.
While Bernardino, a veteran of the last two championships, sparkled on the mound, Mary Joy Floranza, Queenie Sabobo, Michelle Lentija and Krisna Paguican belted two hits each in an awesome display of firepower before a raucous crowd made up mostly of Filipinos in Kalamazoo and Chicago.
Lentija opened the scoring with a double that scored Paguican. Then Sabobo’s single brought in Bernardino and Lentija.
The second inning was highlighted by a two-run homerun by Bernardino. Glesyl Opjer hit a single down the line to score Kristine Joy Lacupa in the third as Manila kept its relentless form.
Also contributing solid games were Baby Jane Raro, Mary Jane Fabellar, Andrea Mae Gonzales, Gene Joy Parilla, Charmaine Joy Oria and Mari Luna Amparo.
“If we wanted to be champions, we should play like champions and we did,” said Santiago, who had rued the errors committed by the team in past games. “It was almost perfect. And the support by the crowd was just overwhelming.”
The Manila team steadily improved as the tournament went on. And while Santiago said the team wasn’t as individually talented as the ones she had coached in their last trips to the finals, this one had better teamwork and chemistry and was the most disciplined.
“They had no Internet, no cellphone during the week of the tournament,” Santiago said. “That was how focused they were for this tournament. They deserve this.”
Manila endured a tough start in the Series, losing its first two games with players still recovering from their 36-hour journey from the Philippines.
The team could have opted for a faster journey to Kalamazoo but it would have meant additional expenses, Borromeo said.
To save on expenses, the team bought a flight that had a nine-hour stopover at Narita in Japan and an 11-hour stop in Honolulu, Hawaii. Then they took a flight to Chicago and had to travel another three hours by bus just to reach the competition venue.
Borromeo said the initial plan was to send only 10 players to the tournament just so they could compete. But Santiago convinced him to bring one more player, stressing it would be difficult to be competitive with a 10-man lineup in such a strong tournament.
Mountain to climb
Two of the players—Opjer and Joy Parilla—got sick on the eve of the tournament, prompting Santiago to again request Borromeo for two more players. With the help of a sponsor, Borromeo was able to fly with Amparo and Fabellar, who made it just in time for the start of their first game.
But the long hours in the air and on the road took a toll on the players as they bowed to Westchester, California, and to Puerto Rico—a team they were traditionally beating in the competition.
That left the team with a mountain to climb as they needed to win six straight to gain a shot at the title. Making the task difficult was the fact that they still had to meet former champion and traditional favorite Kalamazoo and two-time defending champion Grand Rapids.
But with the Filipinas’ game picking up, the two Michigan teams proved no match against the Manila girls.
Blessing in disguise
“I think the first two losses turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it woke up the girls,” said Santiago, who also coaches the Adamson University softball team. “After beating the two Michigan teams, we knew we had a solid chance of going all the way.”
The long road to the World Series title for Manila actually started in the Philippine Series at Clark Field in Pampanga last April. By winning that tournament, the team gained the right to represent the Philippines in the Asia-Pacific championships in Jakarta.
Funding has been a perennial problem as Little League remains a private endeavor. The Philippine Sports Commission—the government’s sports funding arm—has chipped in to help in the past, but was not totally inclined to spend for the campaign as its focus is solely on national team athletes.
Manila ruled the Jakarta tournament with ease. To help meet expenses, Little League International gives out a $10,000 subsidy to the Asia-Pacific champions for their World Series campaign.
Still, it wasn’t enough as the cost of the 15-member delegation’s tickets was estimated to be $35,000-$40,000, Borromeo said.
Time to celebrate
Among those who helped the team were former President Joseph Estrada, Manila Vice Mayor Isko Moreno, Representative Amado Bagatsing, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes, Megaworld, Martin Cojuangco and Philippine Amusements and Gaming Corp.
Borromeo said he had asked a Manila-based travel agency to defer payment for the tickets of the players as he continued to raise funds. The team still owes the travel agency $16,000 for its tickets.
Through it all, Santiago said the players were shielded from the funding problems.
“When it came down to training, they concentrate in training,” Santiago said. “Now is the time for us to celebrate.”