The core of players on The Next Level's 16-under team were part of a top-10 and top-five finish in Amateur Softball Association tournaments in the two age groups below. After this week's developments in the ASA national tournament in Chattanooga, it can now be said The Next Level has taken it to the next level.
The team based in Southern California defeated coach Sonja Strother's Georgia Impact 5-3 and 3-0 in Sunday's championship at Frost Stadium.
Working with batterymate Molly Hutchison, Rachel Nasland was the winning pitcher in the last game. Her three-hitter included one walk and 10 strikeouts.
Lani Vanta made a diving backhanded catch in left-center field for the first out in the final inning. The catch was made more important when the next batter reached base.
"That was a huge play," Nasland said. "That kind of determined the rest of the inning. I know I have strong defense behind me, from outfield to infield to my catcher. They're amazing."
Nasland is about to be a junior at Torrey Pines High School in San Diego, but like some of her older summer teammates she's already made a college commitment and plans on attending Notre Dame. Noelle Johnson, who like Nasland pitched two games Sunday, has accepted an offer from Utah State.
Solidifying the defense up the middle, second baseman Samantha Camello is committed to Texas Tech and shortstop Monica Downey has pledged to play at San Diego State.
"They probably turned five or six double plays in this tournament," said coach Jerry Delamater, whose team went 2-0 in pool play and 9-1 in double-elimination. "We pitched well and played good defense for the most part, except one game."
The Next Level managed a first-inning run in both games in the final. Hailey Kofler's was the first of three consecutive two-out singles in the opening inning of the first championship game and she doubled in the first-inning run in the last game.
"That first game scoring early put the heat on them a little bit," Delamater said. "You've got to give them credit. They battled back."
Johnson was the winning pitcher in the first game and went 2-for-3 with an RBI and run scored. Teammate Maddie Lerma was 2-for-2, drove in a run and scored one in the final game, which marked the fourth time the teams played in the tournament.
The Next Level won in pool play, but lost 2-1 on Sunday morning in the winners-bracket final. Afterward they edged Illinois' Southern Force 5-4 in the losers-bracket final.
"That's two really good, legit 16-under teams right there," Delamater said.
Delamater said his organization has 93 players this year spread over seven teams ranging from 12-under to 18-under Gold. The nickname was in place before he came aboard.
"I think it's a catchy thing," Delamater said. "You can always get to the next level. There's always the next level."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.