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TOP 5 STORIES OF THE YEAR

No. 1

For weeks, the Inverness Senior Softball All-Stars made a statement with their play.

In the end, the team will be remembered more for the game that never took place. With a championship appearance at the Senior League World Series on the line, Inverness, comprising 15- and 16-year-old girls, chose to make a stand off the field, not on it.

Faced with the prospects of playing a team from Santa Cruz Valley, Ariz., that had five boys on its roster, Inverness manager Pete Maggiore decided against playing. His decision drew national attention.

Maggiore believed that Santa Cruz Valley had an unfair advantage. He also worried about the safety of his 12 players, many of whom were significantly smaller than Santa Cruz Valley's five boys.

Santa Cruz Valley later claimed the championship after the other finalist, a team from the Philippines, forfeited for the same reasons.

Inverness settled for third place.

The day after forfeiting the game with Santa Cruz Valley, it scored a 6-3 comeback victory over Jeffersontown, Ky. The official designation is that the Inver ness All-Stars were the third-best team in Senior softball. But the girls and coaches liked the phrase "Best girls softball team in the United States."

The ending was a strange end to an otherwise spectacular summer. The team's run to the World Series was unexpected and improbable.

In July, Inverness, facing elimination, won three consecutive games to claim the program's fifth consecutive District 15 championship.

In early August, Inverness celebrated its first state championship in Dunedin by fighting its way into the finals from the losers' bracket after an opening-round loss. Inverness became the first team in Citrus County history to capture a Little League-sanctioned state title.

The All-Stars defeated Citrus Park once and Vero Beach twice to win the title.

In the 6-5 championship game win against Vero Beach, it rallied from a 5-4 deficit.

That win sent Inverness packing for Waco, Texas, for the Southern Regional Tournament, where the team got off to a slow start. Prior to its opening-round game, ace pitcher Tabitha Schrufer was scratched from the starting lineup after being hit in the face with a softball before the game. Inverness lost to Rockmart, Ga., 3-2, and once again was forced into the losers' bracket.

Inverness would get its revenge.

So would Schrufer.

In winning four consecutive games to claim the Southern Regional title, Rockmart was one of the teams Inverness beat. In the finals, the All-Stars defeated host Needville, Texas, 5-0 as Schrufer struck out seven and allowed four hits.

The All-Stars' next stop was Kalamazoo, Mich., for the eight-team Little League Softball World Series.

In Kalamazoo, Inverness cleared its first hurdle with a 1-0 win over Westfield, Mass., in the opening game thanks to a one-run rally in the sixth inning and a combined one-hitter from Schrufer and Megan Rall. In the second round, Inverness rode the three-hit shutout of Schrufer to a 5-0 win over Aruba.

The win moved Inverness into the winners' bracket final, where it lost to the Philippines, 2-0.

The next day Maggiore made the decision to not play.

"It just seems so unfair," Schrufer said at the time. "I've worked so hard for five years for my dream. And now I can't even try for it."

When the All-Stars returned home, the team was greated by hundreds of fans. Two weeks later, the city celebrated the team's efforts with a parade in downtown Inverness.

Less than two months after the World Series ended, Little League announced it would start a boys softball program next season with the hopes of preventing boys from playing on girls division teams.

For some, the decision came too late.

_ KEITH NIEBUHR

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