Chromies and SPAM win NSL Nationals titles

Mon 4 Sep 2017

By Bob Fromer

A tenth National Championship title for Chromies and an inaugural NSL 2 title for SPAM were the outcomes when the BSF’s first-ever combined NSL Nationals were played at Farnham Park on 2-3 September.

A weekend that featured some great games and high-level play began with a beautiful late summer’s day on Saturday and finished in chilly conditions on Sunday in something between a steady drizzle and light rain.  The weather was never bad enough to stop play, but it did produce an increasing number of players sporting hoodies, sweatshirts and jackets on the field.

Chromies’ tenth National Championship was hardly unexpected, as they had been the dominant team in winning the NSL 1 league title this summer and came to the Nationals with a strong squad that got even stronger as the weekend progressed and players turned up from various diversions.

SPAM had finished seventh in NSL 2 league play, barely making the Nationals, so their win – fully deserved on the basis of consistent batting and good defense over the weekend – was more of a surprise. 

But the feature of both NSL divisions this year was that any team was capable of beating any other team on their day.

It was clear from the reaction of players during the medal ceremony at the end of the day on Sunday, held in the garden at the Home Plate clubhouse, that the NSL 1 and 2 format, with NSL Nationals at the end of the season, is a popular one.  And with an increasing number of teams coming forward to join NSL 2, it may not be long before an NSL 3 is born.
 

NSL 1 Nationals​

Chromies, Pioneers and Legends, the teams that finished in the top three places during NSL 1 league play, had little trouble making the top three places at the end of round-robin play at the NSL 1 Nationals.

Pioneers began the tournament with a large and very strong squad, won their first couple of games easily, and then clawed out a 6-4 win over Chromies in a game that many saw as a preview for an eventual final.

But Pioneers began to stutter during the rest of Saturday, losing 11-9 to Legends in a game in which Legends opened up a big early lead and the Pioneers couldn’t quite come all the way back, and then struggling a bit in an 8-6 win over Knights.

The struggles continued for Pioneers as the round-robin finished on Sunday morning.  First, they could only manage a 9-9 draw with Greensox.  Then, in the game of the weekend, they came back to beat H2O 26-25 on a walk-off grand slam over-the-fence home run by Vicky Chapman, her second fence-clearing blow of the tournament.  But that game may have taken a lot out of the Pioneers.

A quick word here for H2O, last year’s beaten finalists, who only managed to finish sixth this year in NSL 1 league play.  At the Nationals, H2O played everyone tough, losing by only 13-11 to Chromies, 11-9 to Legends, 10-6 to Blue Steel, 10-9 to the surprising Dodgers and by just one run to Pioneers in that epic slugfest on Sunday morning.  But in the end, H2O managed only one win over the course of the weekend and will need to think about rebuilding if they want to get back among the big beasts of NSL 1.

With Chromies, Legends and Pioneers having booked their place in the Page Playoff round in that order, the big question was who would join them.  And as the luck of the schedule would have it, that final place came to down Blue Steel and the Dodgers, and they met in the last round-robin game on Sunday morning, which became a winner-take-all affair.

Both teams scored five runs in the first inning, but after that Blue Steel scored in bunches while the Dodgers could only manage single runs, and Blue Steel won by 11-8.  So the top four teams in the NSL 1 league standings were now the four teams contesting the National Championship Page Playoffs.


Page Playoff games

In a Page Playoff, 1 plays 2 and the winner goes straight to the final while the loser gets another chance, and 3 plays 4, with the loser out and finishing fourth while the winner plays the loser of 1 v 2 for the other place in the final.

That meant Pioneers playing Blue Steel in the 3 v 4 game, and it felt like the Pioneers did not begin the game in a confident frame of mind. 

Blue Steel pitcher Mark Bowman shut Pioneers down over the first three innings on only two hits, while Blue Steel built up an 8-0 lead.  The killer was the top of the third inning, when two outfield errors opened the gates for six Blue Steel runs, as Adam Mullins, Claudine Snape, Szilvi Varadi, Gaetan Gregarek and Jodie Bull all pounded out extra-base hits.

After that, the Pioneers pulled themselves together and mounted the inevitable comeback, cutting the deficit to 9-7 by the end of the sixth inning.  But Blue Steel manufactured three big insurance runs in the top of the seventh on a couple of singles, an error, a walk and a sacrifice fly, and held on to win 12-8 and dethrone last year’s National Champions.

Meanwhile, the 1 v 2 game was not a competitive contest, as Chromies pounded Legends 19-4 and took their place in the final.

So Blue Steel and Legends then played to see who would have the honour of joining the Chromies in that final game.

This was a fine contest that went back and forth over the first four innings, at which point Blue Steel held a 6-4 lead. 

In the top of the fifth, Blue Steel stretched that lead to 9-4 on singles by Jon Reynolds, Sadie Hamilton, Josh Peat, Kristen Kittinger and Mark Bowman, and looked to be pulling away.

But Legends, already feeling the effects of a long and intense weekend, had one more big inning left in them.  They scored 10 runs in the bottom of the fifth, capped by Jeff Swindell’s three-run home run over the fence in left centre field, and a 9-4 deficit became a 14-9 lead. 

Blue Steel didn’t give up, and the teams traded runs over the last two innings.  But when Sadie Hamilton’s hard ground ball in the top of the seventh inning caromed off Legends’ first base player Tara Feeney and right to second baseman Duncan Waugh, who flipped it back to Tara for the final out, it was Legends who prevailed by 18-14.

Could they fare any better against Chromies in the final than they had in the 1 v 2 game?


NSL 1 final

The answer was no, because the final produced that absolute rarity in slowpitch softball – a seven-inning shutout in a game that Chromies won by 14-0.

Chromies’ young pitcher Matt Tomlin threw a gem, pushing the umpire on height, varying depth and location, and never allowing Legends’ hitters to get comfortable.  Legends had only five hits and just one extra-base hit -- a double by Jeff Swindell – over the course of the game, and that’s unheard of in British softball.  Legends managed to get only one runner to third base, and that was on a throwing error. 

This was probably the pitching performance of the season, but it wasn’t a complete surprise – Matt had looked almost as good in other games during a tournament in which he shared the pitching chores for Chromies with veteran David Lee, while legendary Chromies’ pitcher Pat Hoey, who only retired at the end of last season, looked on from the sidelines.

The other factor, of course, was the Chromies’ defense, which was crisp and efficient and committed only two errors.  But they didn’t really have anything very hard to do – most of the plays were routine.

On the other side of the ball, Chromies were equally efficient, scoring in each of the first five innings to build up that 14-0 margin.  There were none of those big double-figure innings that the Chromies can sometimes throw at you, and the most they scored in any one inning was four. 

But their line-up pounded out 17 hits over six innings, and the tone for the game was set with the very first Chromies’ hitter, shortstop Mark Holland, who hit a little fly ball into short left centre field and wound up on third base when a collision jarred the ball loose from left-centre fielder Tash Humphris’s glove.  Legends committed seven errors during the game, and that didn’t help them cope with the steady flow of base hits. 

Mark Holland went 4-for-4 with a double and that lucky triple, Matt Tomlin also went 4-for-4, Eric Kelly homered, Hannah Pitman had a key triple and every player in the line-up had at least one hit.  It’s hard to beat that kind of consistency, and Legends didn’t have enough left in the tank to do it.

The scary thing about the Chromies is that while they may be a veteran team, Manager Doug Clouston is adept at scouting and bringing in young players, and you can see the future of the team in the fact that the MVPs for the final were their two youngest players, Matt Tomlin and Hannah Pitman.

Legends’ captain Duncan Waugh said afterwards, “Some days, you peak a little too soon.  We hit balls at people all through this game and we didn’t put enough on them.  But it’s been a hell of a run, and we fought back a lot over the weekend.  We just couldn’t quite get there in the end.”

Chromies’ captain Danny Gunn said, “It was great to see the team bounce back after last season, and great to get a tenth National Championship for the Chromies.  We were really strong in the NSL this year, and it was the strength of our hitting throughout the squad, as well as great defense, that got us back the title.”


Final standings​

All places are played out at NSL Nationals, but the seventh-place playoff game between H2O and the Knights was forfeited by H2O, which meant that the team that won the European Slowpitch Cup in 2016 and made the NSL 1 Nationals final in the same year finished in last place in 2017.

The Dodgers finishing fifth in their first year of promotion to NSL 1 is a fine achievement.

1 – Chromies
2 – Legends
3 – Blue Steel
4 – Pioneers
5 – Dodgers
6 – Greensox
7 – Knights
8 – H2O
 

NSL 2 Nationals​

The main feature of the NSL 2 Nationals was the parity between the teams, with almost no blowout games throughout the round-robin stage, and 12 games decided by margins of three or fewer runs.

Teams that did well during the NSL 2 league season tended to do well at the NSL 2 Nationals, but there were a couple of exceptions. 

KKs, who won the NSL 2 league title, struggled throughout the weekend and failed to make the Page Playoffs.  But they did win the fifth-place placing game and that’s where they finished in the final standings.

The other exception was SPAM, who only finished seventh during league play, but came to the Nationals with a balanced team of all their own players – no dispensations – and proceeded to carve their way through the field.  Their only loss on Saturday was to Bees – ironically the only team in the Nationals that finished below SPAM in the league standings – and on Sunday they lost a slugfest to the Naturals.

But SPAM finished second in the pool play standings and reversed that result against Naturals in the 1 v 2 Page Playoff game in another slugfest, winning by 27-16. 

In the 3 v 4 Page Playoff game, Blitz blitzed the Misfits 29-16, and swept on past the Naturals to join SPAM in the final.

SPAM captain Jenny Fromer takes up the story to describe the final.
 

NSL 2 final

By the time the final started at 4.15 pm it had been raining steadily for a few hours.  For the previous hour SPAM were huddled at Home Plate, trying to keep warm, while Blitz were playing their third straight game.  These things can go either way, and SPAM were well aware as they struggled to get loose in the cold that that could be a factor.

SPAM was the home team in the final for only the second time all weekend, and their concern seemed warranted as Blitz's first three batters reached base before an out was recorded in the top of the first inning.

All three batters came in to score, but SPAM's solid defense held the damage at three.

In some ways, the bottom of the first inning determined the game.

Speedy lead-off hitter Becky Hickey walked, and there was a collective sigh of relief in the SPAM dugout, as the team could envision responding in kind as they had done all weekend.  But shortstop Simon Gordon struck out on a foul ball and the nerves were back.

And then the next 10 batters all reached base safely.

SPAM's mantra has always been “base hit them to death”, and that's exactly what they did, punctuated by a triple from John Boyd and walks to David Hurley and Becky Hickey for the second time.  When John Boyd hit into a fielder’s choice to end the inning the score stood at 12-3 to SPAM.

In some games that would have been that, but the NSL 2 Nationals were a literal demonstration of how any team can come back in slowpitch softball when teams are so evenly matched.

Chris Carr led off the top of the second inning for Blitz with a hard ground ball down the right-field line that Tanya Moran at first base smothered and lunged to tag the base before Carr could reach it.  Pamela Park then got a base hit to left, Dave House grounded out to first -- and then the next seven Blitz batters all reached with hits, all of them up the middle except for a sharp line drive to right by Jen Cruikshank.  SPAM were being given a dose of their own medicine.

When SPAM pitcher David Hurley snagged yet another line drive up the middle from Ryan Griffiths, the score was 12-8, and much less comfortable.

SPAM could only answer with a single run in the bottom of the second inning, a solo home run from Tanya Moran.

Over the next two innings, however, Blitz sent six batters to the plate and all six were set down by pitcher David Hurley, with help from his defense.  David had pitched every game but one for SPAM over the weekend and his concentration never wavered.

SPAM added on in both innings and Blitz, playing their fourth game in a row, were showing signs of fatigue.

An 18-8 lead for SPAM after four innings should have been comfortable, but again Blitz wouldn't lie down.

The top of the fifth inning started with a rare walk to Martina Malickayova, and by the end of the inning two runs had been driven in on Steven Lovell's triple.

But SPAM kept the base hits coming and answered back with three runs of their own.

Blitz added a run in the top of the sixth inning when Chris Carr singled to the right side and was driven in by a single from Dave House, and SPAM had their only scoreless inning in the bottom of the sixth after Liam Morrison's towering fly ball was snagged at the fence in left.

So going into the top of the seventh inning, SPAM was leading 21-11.  Surely job done?

Blitz had the top of their order up, and they had been productive all game.  The first four batters all reached base and scored, cutting SPAM’s lead to 21-15.  Blitz were re-energised and very loud in the dugout and SPAM were palpably nervous.

Next up was power-hitter Steven Lovell, who hit a sharp line drive towards right field that made a loud sound when second base player Jackie Yong reached up and caught it to record the critical first out.  But Blitz weren't done, and the next two batters, Whitney Hollis and substitute Michael Carr, both hit doubles that left runners on second and third.

But that was the end of the line for Blitz.  Pipp Saul-Harrah (formerly of SPAM) pulled the ball to left fielder Claire Thomas and Chris Carr flew out to Marcus Webb in left centre. The ball had barely touched Marcus's glove before the whole team gathered in the middle of the infield to celebrate winning the first NSL 2 National Championship.

SPAM had only just fought their way into Nationals qualification by finishing seventh in league play, and were probably no one's pick to win the tournament.  But it was one of those weekends where everyone stayed focused, the defense was sharp throughout and every batter played a part in “base hitting them to death”.

The old adage that “every person contributed” could not have been more accurate.

MVPs for the final were Tanya Moran from SPAM and David House from Blitz.


Final standings

KKs, the team that won the NSL 2 league title this summer, had a disappointing Nationals at the end of a great season, and could only finish in fifth place.  Otherwise, and apart from SPAM coming in as the seventh seed and finishing first, there wasn’t a huge variation between league and Nationals places among the NSL 2 teams.

1 – SPAM
2 – Blitz
3 – Naturals
4 – Misfits
5 – KKs
6 – Bees B
7 – Mavericks
8 – Warriors


History

This was the BSF’s 31st National Championship tournament, and though league and tournament structures have changed a lot over the years, the National Championship has generally been competed for by A-grade teams.  This year, with the NSL 2 Nationals, a new history begins for a B-grade National Championship.

Chromies, with their tenth win, have now won 32% of all the National Championships ever played.  Other multiple winners have included Pioneers and Baker Tomkins (13%), Slammers (10%) and one of the very first competitive teams, the Pirates (6%).  The following teams have won the National Championship once: Dragons, Stingrays, Windsor Dodgers, Genies, Isherwood, Meteors, Sliders and London New Zealand.
 

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP WINNERS
2017 -- Chromies
2016 -- Pioneers
2015 -- Chromies
2014 – Chromies
2013 – Chromies
2012 – Chromies
2011 – Pioneers
2010 – Pioneers
2009 – Chromies
2008 – Dragons
2007 – Chromies
2006 – Chromies
2005 – Slammers
2004 – Chromies
2003 – Stingrays
2002 – Pioneers
2001 – Baker Tomkins
2000 – Baker Tomkins
1999 – Baker Tomkins
1998 – Baker Tomkins
1997 – Chromies (then known as Superchrome)
1996 – Windsor Dodgers
1995 – Genies
1994 – Slammers
1993 – Isherwood
1992 – Slammers
1991 – Meteors
1990 – Sliders
1989 – Pirates
1988 – London New Zealand
1987 – Pirates


NSL 2 NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP WINNERS
2017 -- SPAM

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