WESTMINSTER, Colo. – The drumbeats from the Puerto Rico side roared throughout the complex on Sunday evening. The singing and chanting from both the Puerto Rico and Polynesia side were strong and festive. Flags were flying. There is something about representing your country that brings out the best in sports. It brings out the best in us.
For Polynesia left fielder, Atina’eleila Fonoti, that’s exactly what it did, bringing out her best on the biggest and brightest stage. Some kids dream about making a game-saving catch stretched out over the outfield wall. Some kids dream about hitting a walk-off homerun. Fonoti did both, in the same inning, as U16 Polynesia knocked off Puerto Rico in extra innings, 10-9, in the TC International Challenge Gold Medal Game.”
“It was crazy,” Fonoti said of the atmosphere that the championship game brought. “It definitely made me nervous, but I just had to calm myself and remind myself that it was just a game and tune out all the noise.”
As they had done all tournament, Polynesia raced out to a 6-2 lead through three innings. Polynesia had entered the championship with the best offense in the tournament, scoring at least 10 runs in all its games, while Puerto Rico hadn’t given up more than four runs in a game. Facing the early deficit though, Puerto Rico’s pitching and defense settled down and the team began its comeback effort.
In the top of the 4th inning, Puerto Rico put pressure on Polynesia with its speed on the basepaths. After loading the bases, Puerto Rico came through with a sac fly and an RBI single to make it 6-4. In the bottom half of the inning, Puerto Rico induced a one-two-three inning, and the momentum started to shift.
In the top of the 5th inning, Polynesia responded by holding Puerto Rico to its own one-two-three inning, thanks in large part to the defensive play of Fonoti. Fonoti tracked a deep fly ball in left field heading towards the foul line and barreled over the fence while making the catch to record the out. It was a precursor of what was to come.
Neither team was able to muster up much on the basepaths over the next couple of innings and the score remained 6-4 heading into the top of the 7th inning with Puerto Rico down to its final three outs. But once again, Puerto Rico’s speed on the basepaths put pressure on Polynesia.
After a leadoff double from Jasmine Green, a walk and a hit by pitch loaded the bases for Puerto Rico. With the bases loaded, Polynesia got the next batter to ground back to the pitcher and got the force out at home, but going for the double play, the ball hit the runner going to first base and bounced away, allowing a runner from 2nd base to cross home. 6-5. Megan Ramos then stepped up to the plate with an RBI single to tie the game.
In the bottom of the 7th inning, Puerto Rico right fielder Adriana Martinez showcased her arm by throwing out a Polynesia runner at third base to end the inning and send the game into extra innings. Momentum was squarely on Puerto Rico’s side. You could sense it on the field. You could see it in the stands.
“Puerto Rico is a really, really good team,” Polynesia Head Coach Glenelle Nitta said. “They took advantage of all our mistakes. We just tried to stay together and come together to try and get the win. Congrats to the girls. They made all the plays and did all the work out there.”
With momentum on its side, Puerto Rico’s offense got quick to work. With a runner on second for the extra inning rules, Puerto Rico immediately singled it up the middle to take its first lead of the game at 7-6. After another couple of singles, Puerto Rico led 8-6 and eventually had the bases loaded with just one out. A walk made it 9-6 with the bases loaded. That’s when it looked like Puerto Rico was going to run away with the game, but it wasn’t going to happen on Fonoti’s watch.
Once again, a ball was barreled and heading for the left field wall, looking like a sure grand slam that would have put Puerto Rico up 13-6. Fonoti sprinted back towards the fence, tracked the ball, and made the catch while crashing over the fence, holding onto the ball, and ending the inning, and damage, at 9-6.
“To be honest, I was waiting for the ball to come to me,” Fonoti said. “I was anxious. I wanted to get the out and just go hit. It was really fun.”
It was the sliver of hope that Polynesia needed after facing a deficit that it hadn’t seen at this point in the tournament. Charlee-Rose Stevens got things started with an RBI single and advanced to second on the throw, making it 9-7. Mariah Antoque, who had a two-run homerun earlier in the game, followed suit with her own RBI single to make it 9-8.
Enter Fonoti, who stepped up to the plate with a runner on first and one out with Polynesia trailing 9-8. After fouling off a couple of pitches, Fonoti knew what pitch she was looking for. She got it on the third pitch and laced a deep fly ball to right-center field for the walk-off homerun, giving Polynesia the thrilling 10-9 win in the championship game.
“Going into the bottom inning, we were just thinking to make hard contact so that we could score runs,” Fonoti said. “When I first went up to bat, I was just thinking, ‘drive it on the ground and get on base.’ After that third pitch came in though, I thought ‘this is my pitch’ and I swung. I swung for the fences.”
For Polynesia, which also won the 18u division, it was a fitting ending for a team that scored 68 runs in the tournament, 26 more runs than the next best team in the tournament.
“Jocelyn Alo is a great trailblazer for the game of softball and for women athletes,” Nitta said of the Oklahoma University standout who set the NCAA record for career homeruns earlier this year. “She’s an inspiration, not only to us, but for girls across the country that are Polynesian descent. This just shows that no matter how big or how small we may be, we can play the game just as good as anyone else.”