The West Bay Warriors are national champs.
And the scene after the final out of the USA Softball Alliance Fastpitch Championship Series 16U Gold softball tournament was like the Buster Posey-Madison Bumgarner moment after the last out of the 2014 World Series all over again.
Warriors catcher Liv DiNardo gathered the final strikeout, winged the ball straight up in the air and sprinted toward the circle to wrap up pitcher Rose Malen in an epic Buster hug.
It was the crowning moment for the Cinderella run for the San Mateo-based travel softball team, rebounding from a Game 1 loss in the best-of-three championship round last Friday in Oklahoma City to top the powerhouse Corona Angels 3-1 in the Game 3 finale — and the green-and-gold dog pile in the middle of the infield at Hall of Fame Stadium commenced.
“Just to be able to top off the summer with a national championship, I’m just so proud of them,” Warriors coach Kelly McDonald said. “They earned every second of that.”
While the Warriors earned a bid for the national championship tournament at a May qualifier, they still had to earn their propers by climbing through a 58-team field. This includes a four-team regional round, with the Warriors being seeded No. 4 in their pool.
The Warriors went on to sweep pool play — finishing with a 5-4 win Monday, July 26 over Tennessee Mojo — before taking down Impact Gold in the best-of-three regional round to advance to the Elite Eight championship round, where they posted a 3-1 record to earn a shot at the national championship stage in a best-of-three matchup with the Corona Angels.
“These are the four teams that run travel softball — those are the Firecrackers, Corona Angels, Athletics Mercado and the OC Bat Busters,” Kelly McDonald said. “And those four, even when I was playing travel ball, top to bottom, those were the top four organizations.”
The Warriors are a relatively new travel club. Formed in 2014 by Ray McDonald, the current 16U team joined the ranks two years later. Seven players from this year’s national championship squad started together at the 11U level — DiNardo, Megan Grant, Alex Bunton, Talia Tokheim, Olivia Levitt, Gabby Lee and Hannah Cushing — and went on to finish seventh in the nation a year later at the 12U level before winning the USA Softball national championship at the 14U in 2019.
“So, they put us on the map,” Kelly McDonald said.
Grant and DiNardo have been the backbone of the Warriors. Both are Pac-12 commits with full athletic scholarships in hand, with Grant set to attend UCLA and DiNardo heading to University of Arizona. Both have one more year at Aragon before heading to college in 2022-23.
Both were a force in the tournament overall. DiNardo earned Most Outstanding Player honors, while Grant was one of three Warriors named to the All-Tournament team. Neither factored into the finale victory at the plate though. DiNardo enjoyed a good championship series, batting .417 (5 for 12) but Grant was held in check batting .182 (2 for 11). And neither had a hit in the decisive Game 3.
Bunton and Talia Tokheim — each also named to the All-Tournament team — carried the Warriors through the three-game series against the Angels, with Bunton hitting .727 (8 for 11) and Tokheim hitting .625 (5 for 8) with two home runs.
“We could not have won this week without the two of them,” McDonald said. “And the championship series, the two of them came up in huge spots. So, it wasn’t the usual suspects contributing.”
With all three games of the championship series being played in one day Friday, the Warriors had to bounce back after a Game 1 loss 7-6 to the Angels. But there was a moment of levity McDonald witnessed between games 1 and 2, with the Warriors players soaking up the primetime digs in the locker room at Hall of Fame Stadium, the same venue that hosts the annual Women’s College World Series.
“They were blasting music, they were singing, they were dancing,” McDonald said. “So when I saw that, I thought — OK, they’re going to win. … It was like they were 12 years old again. It was like their energy got reignited, which was really cool to see.”
The Warriors bounced back in the Game 2 for a 5-4 victory. After jumping out to a 5-0 lead in the third inning, the Warriors had to hold off a late surge by the Angels, who scored a run in the fourth and three more in the fifth. But relief pitcher Elise Roy emerged in the fifth to escape the jam. Roy went on to pitch 27 1/3 innings in the tournament and posted a 1.27 ERA.
In Game 3, the Warriors went up 1-0 in the first on an RBI single by Bunton. Then in the second, Tokheim added to the lead with a two-run homer to left. Malin did the rest, going the distance while allowing one run on eight hits, and striking out four, including the final swinging strikeout to thrust the Warriors into the echelon of the national softball elite.
“They all play high school together, they all live within 30 miles of each other … so it was really great for these girls to see their hard work, and all the blood, sweat and tears they’ve put in together, they all paid off with a national championship,” McDonald said.
The Warriors also glimpsed the future with the performance of 14-year-old Avery Motroni. Naturally a catcher with the Warriors 14U team, Motroni served as a designated player with her promotion to 16U and was, by far, the baby of the team.
“For how young she is, she’s very mature,” McDonald said. “The game doesn’t get too big, the moments don’t get too big, and she’s fantastic behind the plate.”
While the rest of the Warriors players and staff headed back home to the Bay Area following the tournament, Motroni — who starts at Capuchino in the fall — headed out to Huntington Beach where the Warriors 14U squad is playing in the Premier Girls Fastpitch Nationals.
The remainder of the Warriors 16U roster deserves the respite, though. This she witnessed when, following the Game 3 victory, DiNardo sprawled out in the outfield and didn’t move for what seemed like an out, McDonald said.
“I don’t think they realize what they put their bodies through and what they accomplished,” McDonald said.