Desiree Ates is out for her second championship ring.
Ates, who was part of the Pasco-Hernando Community College volleyball team that won a national championship in November, is also part of the PHCC softball team heading into the national tournament today. She will take to the mound with a 12-5 record this season that makes her one of the best pitchers in PHCC history.
"It's my last chance to play college softball, so I definitely want to go out with a bang," said Ates, a sophomore who will join the University of New Hampshire volleyball team next year. "One ring is good, but two would be awesome."
The Conquistadors find themselves in uncharted territory with their first appearance in the National Junior College Athletic Association's Division II National Softball Championship tournament, which is being held in Normal, Ill. But Ates hopes her experience in the volleyball national championship will help her and her teammates handle the pressure.
"I realize just how big national tournaments are," Ates said. "I know that the key is to just stay calm throughout the whole thing. Whatever happens is what happens. The most important thing is to leave it all out there on the field. We just want to play our game and have no regrets."
Coach Tom Ryan is relishing the opportunity for his squad.
"This is a special group for me," Ryan said. "I've been doing this for a long time and getting a group like this is few and far between. It's very difficult to get to this point, and as a coach you don't get here unless you have the horses to do it. They're the ones that have put in the work, and it's a group I'm proud to be around, on and off the field."
Success this season has come in droves for a team that Ryan has seen grow up and take charge of its own destiny over the last year. Finishing with a record of 31-18, the team surpassed its own expectations as well as everyone who saw it play at the beginning of the season.
"The sophomores displayed all the things you want to see in leaders and the freshman followed suit," Ryan said. "I think it was a trip to Savannah earlier this year that was crucial for us to come together. When we got back, we pretty much ran the table to get to where we are now."
For the freshmen, the experience of playing in a national tournament will benefit them next year. But they also feel a tangible pressure to live up to their potential for their sophomore teammates.
"Everyone is really excited to be here," freshman rightfielder Michelle McKonly said. "I think coming into next year we know what we're capable of. For those of us who come back, we know from these sophomores to share our experience. We never thought we'd be playing at this time of year after looking at the team's record last year. It goes to show that anything is possible."
The sophomores on Ryan's team have developed as leaders this season and, according to the coach, have been the key component in the success of the team this year. In addition to her pitching prowess, Ates is also the leading hitter on the team, batting .297 with five home runs and 32 RBI.
"Coming out of last year I saw what we wanted to do, and I think all of our sophomores have stepped up to make it happen," Ates said. "We've gone from losing streaks to winning streaks, and from the beginning we've been dedicated to winning."
Ryan hopes the team can ride that momentum into the tournament.
It's a double-elimination competition, but there is little room for error if the team is going to hoist a trophy on Saturday.
"We've been playing great defense the past few months, and we have to maintain that," Ryan said. "We've hit the ball extremely well, and in times when we were down a few runs the girls kept battling and next thing you know we're ahead. We just need to try to keep doing what we've been doing."
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PHCC begins tournament play against Labette Community College of Kansas at noon today. The winner of that game will play again at 4 p.m. today. For information on the tournament, visit www.njcaa.org. For information about PHCC softball, visit www.phcc.edu/athletics/softball/.