When the Nunaka Valley girls all-stars began practicing in early July, nearly a year after finishing fifth in the Little League Junior Softball World Series, returning player Taria Page quickly furnished the team mantra: Unfinished business.
Saturday afternoon in Kirkland, Wash., the slugging shortstop amended the message: Business is finished.
Nunaka Valley seized the world championship for 12-14-year-olds with a 6-2 win over Victoria, British Columbia. The victory was delivered by diligent defense, pitcher Lauren Syrup's complete-game performance and an early outburst of scoring.
"Best feeling in the world,'' first baseman Morgan Hill said by cellphone amid the celebration with her teammates on the outfield grass at Everest Park. "On Cloud Nine.''
For Hill and four others -- Page, Syrup, Hannah Peterson and Jacynne Augafa -- this marked the third time in four seasons they have advanced to an age-group World Series with a Nunaka Valley team.
The only thing lacking from their softball resumes was a world championship -- "A big dream,'' Syrup called it -- and now that shortcoming has been solved.
"This is extremely gratifying,'' Syrup said after she shut down a Victoria team that has made three consecutive World Series appearances. "I can't even put it in words.''
Players raced to center field to celebrate after center fielder Felila Manu raced back to the front edge of the warning track and snagged Emma Bowman's two-out blast with runners on first and third bases in the top of the seventh inning.
When Bowman, who hit a home run in Victoria's semifinal win over Puerto Rico, launched her shot, Nunaka Valley held its collective breath because of Bowman's power and Manu's penchant for playing a shallow center field.
"It looked from the dugout like it was going to either clear the wall or come close,'' Richard Hill said. "We knew if (Manu) could get to the ball she would make the play.''
Manu thought ahead, Morgan Hill said. The center fielder later told Hill that, recognizing Bowman's power, she moved two or three steps deeper when Bowman came to bat.
Nunaka Valley received a plaque signifying its World Series title and a banner -- "In softball, it's all about the banners,'' Richard Hill said -- declaring its championship. The girls get to keep their World Series jerseys, and Hill said Continental Motors owner Marten Martensen of Anchorage no doubt will give each player a three-foot trophy, as he has done in the past when Nunaka Valley reached the World Series.
Nunaka Valley won district and Alaska championships before rolling through the West Region in Tucson, Ariz., with four straight wins. At the World Series, it went 5-1. It rebounded from an 8-5 pool-play loss to Puerto Rico on Thursday to beat host Kirkland 9-2 in a semifinal Friday. With its championship victory, Nunaka Valley finished 16-2 this summer -- its only other loss came to Juneau in the best-of-5 state title series the Anchorage team won in four games.
Saturday's championship game began in dicey fashion for Nunaka Valley. Syrup, who started all six World Series games, walked the first two Victoria batters, Stephanie Galitzine and Hailey Young, on eight straight pitches. That prompted a visit to the mound from Richard Hill, who huddled his infielders around Syrup.
"I just wanted to go out there and settle them down,'' he said. "I told them, 'We're gonna be fine.' Told Lauren, 'Keep throwing hard, get 'em to hit the ball and our defense will take care of it.' "
After Jenna Saulnier's sacrifice bunt advanced the runners, Victoria's Ashley Penney hit a ground ball to Page at shortstop. Page threw to Hill at first base for the out and Hill immediately relayed the ball home to catcher Augafa, who blocked the plate and tagged out Galitzine for an inning-ending double play.
"That was amazing,'' Syrup said. "I was totally relieved.''
"Like a weight off our shoulders,'' Morgan Hill said.
"That's a cool bunch of customers,'' Richard Hill said.
Morgan Hill slapped an RBI single in the first inning, and in the second inning Nunaka exploded for four runs and a 5-0 lead. Hill walked with the bases loaded to plate pinch-runner Alexis Joubert, Manu's two-run single scored Page and Blair, and Hill scored on a double steal when Manu faked a steal of second base and induced a throw to second base that allowed Hill to scamper home.
Those runs were the first earned runs in the tournament surrendered by Penney, the Victoria pitcher who struck out 11 batters Saturday.
Victoria plated two runs in the top of the third to cut Nunaka's lead to 5-2, but Nunaka pinch-runner Sierra Rosenzweig scored on a passed ball in the bottom of the inning to give Nunaka a 6-2 cushion.
Syrup surrendered four hits in the last four scoreless innings and stranded six runners, five in scoring position.
When Manu ended the game by catching Bowman's drive, Nunaka Valley could finally exhale.
Business was finished.
"Wow,'' said Richard Hill. "That was awesome.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.Photos: Championship game
By DOYLE WOODY
Anchorage Daily News