WESLEY CHAPEL — Blessed with a lack of egos and a plethora of talent, the Wesley Chapel All-Stars Ponytails are state champions on a quest for national glory.
Coach Phil Perez has seen his softball players overcome bad innings and big deficits to win both the district and state tournaments in the last two months.
His team of 11- and 12-year-old girls has several strong arms, and as the girls prepare for their trip to the Dixie League World Series in Louisiana, pitching is what Perez believes will be the difference maker.
"We've got four girls who can take the mound at any time and be relied upon to throw strikes," Perez said. "That's the name of the game. ... We've played some great defense this year. We're going to need it because at this tournament, we won't be killing teams. They're the best from their state so it's going to be tight games."
Perez recalled the first game of the state tournament where the girls trailed 5-2 after four innings. With the midday heat beating down, second baseman Kristen Gregorich snapped up a ground ball and in one motion tagged the runner heading to second and threw out the hitter at first. It would re-energize her team and spark a late-game rally that saw the girls score seven runs in two innings.
"It was just one of those plays that woke everyone up," Perez said. "After that game I think their confidence exploded because now they know they can come back from being down."
The Dixie League World Series is a double-elimination tournament among state champions from around the country. The girls face at least six games against top quality opponents and are eager to prove themselves.
"I don't think we've faced these kinds of opponents yet, so it's going to be interesting," outfielder and pitcher Kristen Gay said. "I think it's going to be an exciting trip just hanging out in the hotel and experiencing the travel together.
"We're a strong team and we have a lot of confidence in our ability. But the other teams have to be good too and probably feel the same way, so we maybe need to think that we're just the same as everyone else in the tournament."
Perhaps the biggest reason for their success has been everyone's willingness to accept a team ethic and avoid breaking down into cliques, he said.
"We don't have a superstar really," Perez said. "The girls have all bought into the team concept, and they stick together, as do our parents. This kind of thing isn't possible without good parents, and this group all get along nicely. There is no animosity in this team anywhere, no yelling or getting down on each other. They aren't just a team; they're really friends."
The players' parents attribute a lot of the success to Perez's coaching. His style of blending fun with work is something the girls and parents enjoy, said Jennifer Hudson, mother of player Payton Hudson.
"I think coach Perez's style of coaching is fantastic," Hudson said. "It's serious and he keeps the girls busy, but they have a lot of fun. I think this memory is going to be the best part of the whole experience for the girls. They may never travel to something like this again, so I'm excited for them. They have a really good chance to do something special against some good competition."