Three slow-pitch softball teams of the Howard County Youth Program are ready to continue their winning ways.
Two teams, the age 10-and-under Mustangs and the 12-and-under Hurricanes each won consecutive tournaments, while a third, the 14-and-under Terminators, placed first and took second in another.
The Mustangs and Hurricanes captured the PONY East Zone tournament last weekend at Cedar Lane Park and won titles at the Bob Hoffman Memorial Tournament the weekend before in York, Pa. The Terminators finished second at Cedar Lane and placed first in Pennsylvania.
All three teams hope to continue their torrid pace at the National Softball Association World Series in Rock Hill, S.C., that starts today and runs through Sunday. Each team will play at least two games. To capture a title, a squad would have to win 12 games.
"The teams are playing really well," said Steve Kunkel, manager of the Mustangs and commissioner of HCYP softball. "They are peaking, and we hope it carries into this weekend."
Several of the teams may need more than hope when they face powerhouses from more than 17 states, from Pennsylvania to Florida to Texas. The three Columbia teams qualified for the tournament after each took second in the NSA Maryland State Tournament earlier this summer.
"The further down South you go, the better the teams are," Kunkel said. "The Georgia and Florida teams dominate the tournament because the weather allows them to play year-round. Our season is limited to three or four months. In the back of our mind you hope to win a tournament, but, realistically, we want each team to win two games. That's our goal, and we think it's obtainable."
Bob Bounds, manager of the Hurricanes, agrees with Kunkel, and said the Columbia teams will likely not win as many games as they lose.
"The competition in this tournament is unbelievable," Bounds said. "There's no ambition of going down there and winning the tournament. If it happened, it would really surprise everyone."
Last year, the 16-and-under Hawks, a team not playing in the tournament this season, finished an HCYP-best 11th out of 45 teams. Another squad, the Terminators, went 3-2, placing 16th out of 46 clubs. The other squads, the Hurricanes (44th out of 52, losing two games) and the Mustangs (18th out of 26, dropping two of three), have higher hopes for this weekend.
The draws for all the clubs will be picked this morning.
Despite the drubbing that some teams faced last summer and in recent years, HCYP will continue efforts to return to the tournament every summer. The program has been sending teams since 1987.
"We always play decent ballgames, but we never seem to get over the top," Kunkel said. "It's a real big event for the kids. They have pre-game ceremonies, a big parade and a gift exchange. They just cater to the kids."
When the two teams won the PONY tournament last weekend, they qualified for the PONY nationals in Round Rock, Texas. But because of the high cost of the trip, the program instead will send the teams to South Carolina.
"We chose this trip because of economics," Kunkel said. "It's seven to eight hours to drive down there."
Kunkel said HCYP will take the three teams south for about $9,000 -- what it would cost to send one to Texas. HCYP raised between $6,000 and $7,000 through fund-raisers for the trip. The rest will be funded by parents.
HCYP attributes its success to the large number of participants, about 700 in the program.
"We are the largest slow-pitch softball organization in the state," Bounds said. "Most of the other organizations have 200 to 300 kids."