A penny saved earns Wildcats a little luck, spot in nationals

Defense has been the team's overall strength, and the Wildcats will get some extra practice through three invitation-only tournaments, including a showcase tournament.

Published June 24, 2007

Becky Powell shifted the dirt with her shoe while manager Jim Ehlers talked to the Tampa Wildcats about their hitting.

It was early June and the U18 softball team was in the middle of another weekend tournament. The Wildcats had been winning most games - barely. The squad needed to improve offensively.

Ehlers kept talking and Powell kept shifting. She unearthed a penny. The 1994 coin was heads up so Powell put it in her pocket. She announced to the team its hitting luck would change.

Turns out, she was right.

The Tampa Wildcats' hitting improved that day and has continued to do so. A week later, the team earned a berth to the USA/Amateur Softball Association Nationals, which will be held at College Station in late July. The elite tournament draws hundreds of college coaches.

To earn a berth, the Wildcats won the 16th annual Capital City Invitational in Tallahassee on June 8-10. The Wildcats stayed out of the loser's bracket and thumped the competition, outscoring opponents 28-5 and recording 43 hits in five games.

The pitchers, which included Powell, combined to strike out 35 and give up 21 hits.

Powell is one of three Hernando County standouts who has figured prominently in the Wildcats' success. Jamie Lee Basinger, who played shortstop for Springstead, and Alex Gaffney, a catcher who recently graduated from Hernando, complete the trio.

Powell, who recorded 180-plus strikeouts pitching for Springstead as a junior, combined with sisters Amber and Ashley Ehlers. During each Wildcats' game, that penny was in her pocket.

Powell said her changeup needs some work, but her best pitch is a screwball that rises.

"I just try to jam 'em up and in, " Powell said.

Manager Jim Ehlers said Powell has improved this season.

"She's improved a lot more on her ball control, " Ehlers said. "She throws a lot of breaking balls. She's really developed her pitching."

Powell, who is getting looks from schools nationwide, said a key to the Wildcats' success was staying out of the loser's bracket. That is something the team struggled with in previous tournaments and it made for a long weekend.

"We've had a couple weekends that have been long like that, " Powell said. "We stayed out of it in Tallahassee. We didn't want to be in that situation again."

Basinger, a rising sophomore and one of the two youngest players on the team, said the Wildcats also are successful because of the sister-like mentality.

"We joke around a lot and I think it brings us all together, " said Basinger, who also has played third and second this season. "We have a lot of fun when we go out to tournaments."

Gaffney joined the team late, but she wasn't a newcomer. Powell and Basinger played against Gaffney during the school year. Ehlers has watched the power hitter grow up from the younger leagues to today. Gaffney, batting .550, is the cleanup hitter. She cashed in the qualifying weekend with two home runs.

"She was the difference maker, " coach Clint Basinger said. "She hit the game-winning hit in the last game. Her bat scored multiple runs for the weekend for us."

The Wildcats have about a month before the national competition cranks up and Ehlers said the team will keep its focus on hitting. Defense has been the team's overall strength, and the Wildcats will get some extra practice through three invitation-only tournaments, including a showcase tournament.

Rest assured, Powell won't forget the penny.

Kellie Dixon can be reached at kdixon@sptimes.com or (352) 544-9480.

USA/ASA National Tournament

What: The Tampa Wildcats qualified for the USA/ASA Girls Class A 18-under Fast Pitch Tournament

When: July 29-Aug. 5

Where: College Station, Texas

The team: Kayla Saastamoinen (Mitchell), Felicia Vaporis (Tarpon Springs), Jennifer Hunter (Tarpon Springs), Alex Gaffney (Hernando), Michelle Mennone (Tarpon Springs), Jamie Lee Basinger (Springstead), coach Clint Basinger, Ashley Ehlers (Dunedin), Amber Ehlers (Dunedin), Angela Horne (Alonso), Becky Powell (Springstead), Heather Norris, manager Jim Ehlers, Danielle Wright (Countryside), coach Dave Hunter