“We started the team in 2014, and many of these players have been with us a long time. It’s organically evolved, but every player that has joined us understands our team culture and shares our values,” he says. “We have a lot of selfless players, so when you come on this team, I think that it’s refreshing for a lot of players. We’re competitive, but there’s a chemistry we offer that I think a lot of people gravitate to.”
This chemistry helps the team believe they are in any game, regardless of what the scoreboard says.
Head Coach Mike Lunsford and Assistant Coach Jason Wade know a thing or two about building winning teams. They won a national championship in Roanoke in 2020 and another in 2018. In 2019, they finished 3rd in PGF platinum. This year they brought their 16U squad to the MOJO organization due to their winning ways and player first approach.
“They have a great group of teams over there,” said Lunsford. “With seven national championships, plus the two we bring with us, this organization has nine championships over the last five years. It’s about the girls – not the organization. It’s hard to grow a team culture, but here in MOJO it’s a winning a culture that is all about the girls. That was well established before we got here and we want to continue to grow that culture and get better as a team.”
The 16U Explosion (Hilliard) is the rare local, homegrown team that finds national success. The team started in a rec league, then moved to travel ball. Eventually, they joined the Explosion organization and haven’t looked back. Coach Chuck Hilliard explains how the team has been able to win games at the national level.
“We really hang our hat on our pitching. We’ve got a dominant number one pitcher who happens to be my daughter, Lauren. She’s going to be in the circle for us in any high-level game,” Hilliard says. “Offensively we just have a bunch of big bats. Our one through seven can consistently put it out of the park.”
Hilliard believes another important component of the team’s success has been remaining true to their original vision for what kind of team he wanted to build.
“If we had all 25 kids (in the 2023 class) verbally committed, that’s a successful season,” said Blades-Rogers. “Wins and losses are great – and I want to win – but the reality is that it is all about their future.”
Blades-Rogers understands softball success quite well. Her accomplishments as a player are extensive. She was the 2000 Honda Sports Award Softball Player of the year as an All-American pitcher for the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. She’s left her mark on the sport with the second most wins in college softball history while ranking fifth all-time in strikeouts. In 2012, she became a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
The 16U Atlanta Vipers 05 boast a talented roster built on speed, power and discipline. These girls have sky-high expectations for the upcoming travel ball season even as a first-year 16U team. Whether they’re winning tournaments, facing 18U teams in scrimmages, or grinding through practice together, the Atlanta Vipers know how to be great, in large part because they’ve been taught from the beginning what it takes to be champions.
Coach Stacy Tamborra leads the Vipers. After Tamborra finished her decorated pitching career at Florida State, she said she would never coach or teach. However, she began giving a few lessons and helped coach a local travel team. As she worked with the girls, she began to change her mind. “I just realized that God just had a bigger plan for me. You’re able to impact kids at a whole other level when you’re instructing them,” Tamborra says.
Coach Kevin Hinde of the 16U Team NC has many words to describe Teagan Ritchie. Competitor and leader top the list, but gritty might be the most fitting.
“With her athleticism, Teagan can literally play anywhere on the field. She just makes plays,” he says. “She has that presence about her on the field. She’s going to scrap and do whatever it takes, whether it’s to get an out, score a run or help her teammates get going.”
Ritchie is Fastpitch Network’s 13th ranked utility player and 34th ranked player overall. She plays primarily middle infield with some occasional time in centerfield. However, Ritchie particularly relishes the challenge of playing shortstop.
It takes an athlete with true grit to show up on the softball diamond in 40-degree April weather to get her reps in at the plate. Teams in the northeast often face a different kind of rival – the weather. And cold weather becomes just another opponent to be trampled and stormed.
Training is seasonal in the northeast, and teams often find themselves spending more time indoors than their southern counterparts. But learning to navigate the seasons builds character and initiates a sense of determination in these athletes.
Meet the Rhode Island Thunder. Founded in 1997 by David Lotti, the Rhode Island Thunder has grown to become one of New England’s premier softball organizations. Featuring eleven teams ages 12U to 18U, the Rhode Island Thunder can be found annually at top events such as Boulder IDT, TC Nationals, and PGF Nationals to name a few.