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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Chicago Bandits --- 2016 NPF Champions

It would be a safe bet that, had the NPF Championship Series carried odds in Las Vegas, the Chicago Bandits would not have been the favorites. After a third-place finish in the regular season standings, the squad would have to face all-time pitching great Monica Abbott in the semifinal round and the mighty USSSA Pride in the championship final.

After upsetting Abbott and the Dawgs in three games in the semifinal round, the Bandits were tasked with facing the regular-season champion and perennial powerhouse Pride. Far from the same squad that won the Cowles Cup a year ago, after losing Abbott themselves as well as offensive veterans Tammy Williams and Ambenr Patton, the Bandits would have to rely on rookies and newcomers immensely to get the job done.

It was faith well-placed.

Rookie infielder Kristen Brown provided the team's only offense, a solo shot in their game one defeat. All-NPF selection Jill Barrett, acquired in an offseason trade, hit the three-run home run in game two that gave her squad the lead that they would never relinquish en route to forcing a winner-take-all game three.

Gold Glove finalist Brittany Cervantes let her offensive prowess shine through, hitting a home run in back-to-back games in the latter half of the series and gathering at least one hit per game in the championship finals to earn herself Most Valuable Player honors.

But, for all of the impressive performances of Barrett and Cervantes, it was mid-season signee Angel Bunner who stole the show in Game 3. Signed as a free agent after sitting on the market for nearly a full year, Bunner became an experienced stalwart for the squad down the stretch. Turned to with the season on the line, she turned in one gem of a performance in game three, throwing six one-run innings and scattering eight hits across that span. Her lone blemish came in the form of a solo home run from Triple Crown winner Kelly Kretschman.

Joining Bunner in the postseason heroics in the circle was rookie hurler Shelby Turnier, a player team owner Bill Sokolis called one of the finest first-year players in the league this season. Turnier threw 2.2 innings of shutout relief in game two, allowing just two hits, and came in to shut the door in game three with a 1-2-3 inning to clinch the franchise's second-consecutive Cowles Cup championship.

The coaching mastery of Mike Steuerwald cannot go unmentioned, either. Strategically maneuvering a game plan that mixed an offensive press with a defensive emphasis and making pitching changes at the exact right moment underscored the veteran coach's abilities and coolness under the postseason pressure.

In earning their second consecutive championship, Sokolis' squad illustrated the old sports idiom that any team can beat any other on any given day. And they did it in style.

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