The Saints Came Marching In
By Laura Latzko, September 2016 Web Exclusive.
Despite the weather conditions that made each play more challenging than anticipated and the roster obstacles that kept the team from attending the World Series last year, the Los Diablos Saints overcame adversity and emerged undefeated in the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Association (NAGAAA) Gay Softball World Series.
This year, 59 D-division teams from around the country competed in the 40th annual NAGAAA World Series, which took place from Aug. 15 to 20 in Austin, Texas.
In the Saints’ seven games, they facing teams from Washington DC, Las Vegas, Nashville, Fort Lauderdale, Columbus and Seattle, all for the first time.
The Saints became the first D-division team and the third team overall from the Cactus Cities Softball League to win the national tournament. The A-division Toros won first place in 2009 and the B-division Crush in 2004.
“It’s still partially unbelievable. It’s one thing to know that you can do it, and then it just takes it to another level of excitement to know that we did it,” said Conard Franz, coach for the Los Diablos Saints who is also a player for the Toros and the league’s NAGAAA representative. “Just seeing the team play more as a family than a team and having the guys just really play their hearts out, it just takes it to a whole other level.”
Texas or Bust!
Last year, the Plazma Lizards qualified for the World Series, but didn’t have enough people committed to participate. This year, Franz said, the Saints players and coaches went into the spring season with one goal: preparing for the national tournament.
To get to the World Series, the team won its division with a 14-2 record during the spring 2016 season. It was the only D-division team from Phoenix in the national series this year.
During the summer months, the team practiced every week, sometimes in 110-degree weather. Franz worked with the team on fundamental hitting and throwing drills leading up to the national tournament.
The hard work paid off. Throughout the tournament, the team played strong defense. In many of the games, the Saints came from behind to win – by scoring as many as 12 runs in one inning.
“When you get back into the game, it’s like, ‘We could really win this.’ Everybody gets more aggressive. They play smarter,” said Patrick Ramirez, second baseman for the Saints, who joined the league this spring.
During the championship game, the team was ahead 19-6, and the game was called under the run rule.
Under the Weather
The games took place at all hours of the day, due to the rainy conditions throughout the tournament.
According to Jesse Sepulveda, catcher for the Saints, the wet and muddy field conditions, along with the humidity, made it uncomfortable and tough to play.
“Running the infield from base to base, it literally felt like you were running on a beach. The mud would just cake into your cleats, and it felt like you had five-pound weights on your feet,” Sepulveda said. “It was hard to make sure you touched every base and not slip and hurt yourself … The balls didn’t travel as fast in the infield. When the ball was hit in the infield, you really had to run up and charge at it, and it got wet, so that added a little bit of weight to the ball.”
Throughout the tournament, the Saints players had to be ready to play at any time, on short notice. Before one game, they only had a 35-minute warning.
“Traffic was heavy, and everybody was panicked to get there, but once we got there, we went through our warmups, like we always do,” said Fred Zenner, assistant coach and first baseman. “You grab a partner and start throwing back and forth, and you just get into that calm place. We know that when we’re on, no one can beat us. We just have that attitude.”
Against All Odds
The Saints went to the World Series with 12 instead of 14 players when one player came down with valley fever and another sustained multiple skull fractures after being hit by a ball.
Additionally, a number of players (including Zenner and Sepulveda) overcame injuries sustained earlier in the year to play in the tournament.
The team also brought pickup players from other league teams to the World Series.
Rob Holtsoi, a pickup outfielder, practiced and fundraised with the team throughout the summer. He had also previously played with members of the Saints on a traveling team.
Gerard Curley, a pickup pitcher, came in and pitched nearly every game when the Saints regular pitcher wasn’t feeling well.
Heading onto the World Series, each player practiced at different positions to be ready to step in, if needed.
Right fielder and second baseman John Mazzilli said the team worked because of its ability to adapt and its cohesion.
“We pick each other up. Off the field, it’s a good group. On the field, it’s a well oiled,” Mazzilli said. “We know our roles. Nobody’s screaming at each other. Nobody’s getting on each other. Everybody’s going to make an error, everybody does, but we get past it, and we make the next play.”
An Unforgettable Experience
This marked the first World Series experience for several members of the team.
Shortstop Daniel Torres, who has played softball for 20 years in Mexico and Phoenix, described winning the tournament as an unforgettable experience.
Similarly, Sepulveda said the experience of playing together in a World Series brought the team closer.
“[T]his is your family for the week,” Sepulveda said. “You’ve shared a life experience. You represented your community and Phoenix as a whole at the Gay Softball World Series.”
Catcher Brian Kelly has gone from being a fan to a competitive player. For a number of years, Kelly went to the World Series as a supporter for his husband, who has been playing softball for over 10 years.
“For somebody like myself, I used to be a ‘sports wife.’ I never used to want to play,” Kelly said. “Four years after I started playing, I’m on a World Series team. It feels epic.”
Outfielder and assistant coach Julio Reyes-Davila hopes the Saints win will bring more attention to and garner more interest in the D league, which is often seen as a recreational league.
“We saw leagues that had three teams representing,” he said. “Imagine when Phoenix gets to that level. We had to represent so more people will start playing and we will have a bigger league.”