Four years ago, Eugene Denard was one of a group of people who started the Oakland Bandits Fast Pitch Softball Association.
"We decided we wanted competitive softball in Oakland," Denard said.
They have achieved their objective. The Bandits 16-and-under team recently won the Oakland Metro Tournament in Hayward to qualify for the Amateur Softball Association/USA Girls Softball Class A national championship tournament. It is the first time in the program's history that a team has qualified for an ASA national tournament.
"It means that our program has gone from unknown, unestablished to be a force to be reckoned with," said Denard, who also coaches at St. Mary's High. "Four years ago, we were just trying to fill a team and play competitive softball. Now the young ladies are playing in front of college recruiters."
In the championship game of the Oakland Metro Tournament, the Bandits fell behind 9-4, but rallied for a 12-10 win over the Bears. The key hit for the Bandits was a three-run home run by Tatianna Kelly, an Alameda High student.
"We never gave up. We kept fighting, even if we were losing the game," said Kelly about her team's performance in the tournament.
The Bandits opened the tournament with a 10-5 win over Impact. Kelly had a triple, and both Madison Pozzi of Salesian High and Dyemond Dye of San Leandro High had doubles for Oakland.
Then the Bandits defeated Lady Hustle 4-1. Janai Denard, also a St. Mary's student, earned the pitching win and also hit a double. Alexis Scalzo of Bishop O'Dowd also had a double.
"I really like the team because they are all welcoming," Janai Denard said. "We don't have too much drama. It's like a second family."
In its third of four games in the tournament, the Bandits defeated the Bears 6-4. Scalzo and Pozzi were both 3 for 4 with one double. Scalzo was also 4 for 4 with three doubles in the championship game, and Rae Garcia of St. Mary's was 2 for 3.
"It was so amazing how they jelled together so well. It was amazing to sit down and watch," said the Bandits' Yeawa Asabi, a San Leandro High student who did not play in the tournament due to an injury.
Asabi, Kelly and Janai Denard are three athletes who have played for the Bandits four years. Another of those players is Ikera Davis, a Berkeley High student.
"I love the sense of family. I love the sense of security. I know these girls have my back, and the coaches too," said Davis about the team. "We pick each other up and help each other."
The word "family" kept coming up when players talked about the team.
"Everybody's supportive and it's like a family," said Haley Ferrufino-Jurs, a Bishop O'Dowd High student.
The association is seeking donations to help pay for its players' lodging and air fare to the nationals, which are in Salem, Virginia from July 27 to August 3. If you are interested in making a donation, visit oaklandbandits.com.