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Team Oregon puts up 12 runs in pool play, clinches berth in LLSWS elimination bracket

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Willow Creek shortstop Kaiya Suyama and the major all stars defeated Italy in pool play on Thursday.

Willow Creek, get ready for your ESPN closeup, we'll see you Monday.

Against whom and what time is to be determined. But the desired destination and always hallowed venue are now certain.

After its wild come-from-behind rally win over Canada on Wednesday to kick off the Little League Softball World Series, Willow Creek played a well-rounded, holistic game against Italy, knocking off the European outfit in a 12-4 decision at Alpenrose Stadium for its second pool play victory of the tournament. Representing Oregon District Four in winning fashion, Willow Creek clinched a bid in the LLSWS elimination bracket with two pool play games to go. At worst, "Team Oregon" will be the third or fourth seed coming out of Pool B. Either way, Willow Creek can check off one its cardinal pre-tournament goals and will get to prove to a national television audience what they're all about next week.

"It's unreal that we're even here and playing such elite teams," Willow Creek starting pitcher Bridgette Boling said. "It's such an amazing experience. Yesterday we all had nerves with the cameras and the reporters. But we've played on this field before, so it's nothing different than what we've done in the past, which I feel is an advantage."

Should Team Oregon beat Southeast on Friday or Southwest on Saturday or win both of the final two games of pool play, then Willow Creek would rise in the standings for a possible easier path to the title game. They will compete on Monday in elimination play at Alpenrose at a time to be determined on ESPN2 or ESPNEWS. 

"I was nervous in the beginning, but I know our team is really good," Willow Creek's Sofia Santana said. "If we lost today, we would've had to win one more (game) and there would've been a lot more pressure. To know we're already in a good spot (for elimination play) is even more relaxing."

Against Italy, Erin Boling and her coaching staff stressed that Willow Creek go after first-pitch strikes, that jumping on the best available offering early in the count would lend itself to putting the ball in play with more regularity. It was an approach that paid off in spades as Willow Creek had eight base hits and forced Europe-Africa into six errors, many of which were created by the contact Oregon drew at the plate. Bridgette Boling and Sofia Cherry each had two hits apiece. Kaiya Suyama had a two-run double and three total RBIs. Santana came into pinch hit and punched a two-out, two-run double to the gap in right-center in the fourth inning that punctuated a four-run frame for Willow Creek. 

"I kept hitting foul (balls), so I knew I was on the ball, I just had to get my bat around it," Santana said. "With two people on base, I knew they were counting on me to get them home. It felt awesome. I didn't expect that. I just saw the ball go and was like 'Whoa, I just did that.'"

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - The Willow Creek softball team is 2-0 in pool play at the Little League Softball World Series.

Sierra McKenna, Gaby Bauer, Evyn Morriss and Addilyn Gates each grabbed RBIs as well. Willow Creek continually put the ball in play by being aggressive and not settling for the perfect pitch. They didn't have to be choosy, but they didn't mindlessly chase after junk either. It was a sublime balance of aggression and patience that put runners on base inning after inning. Italy had a tough time coming up with Willow Creek's hard hits, which allowed the Oregon representatives to be decisive and assertive on the bases as well. 

"We go up thinking 'Yes, yes, yes' until it's not a strike," Bridgette Boling said. "As a pitcher, your first pitch is supposed to be a strike, or you're trying to get a strike. As hitters, we want to attack that."

"You have to expect a strike, don't guess, you have to expect it's going to be a good pitch," Santana said. "So, you watch the ball, watch the ball, and if it's in your strike zone, you have to swing hard."

Each final pool play game will be legitimate challenges for Willow Creek as Southwest is the reigning LLSWS champs who just so happen to bring back seven players off last year's squad. Southeast is stacked as well. Both opponents will give Willow Creek a look at what it'll take to have a chance at making it deep into the elimination bracket. But Team Oregon will go in knowing it's secure in its standing and surefooted in its stature. Any shakiness that came from the extra media attention, first time competing on TV and facing unfamiliar foes is stabilized after two games. Bridgette Boling again starred in the circle against Italy and surrendered four runs on four hits over six innings, striking out eight.

"I liked how relaxed the girls were," Erin Boling said. "They were excited to be here. I didn't see the nerves as I saw yesterday. Now, I think we can just settle down and play softball, which is what we came here to do. I'm really proud of the girls. They focused today and showed what they can do and showed off their skills."

Italy and Canada were far from pushovers. They went at Willow Creek with enthusiasm and surprising softball acumen. Each foreign foil gave Willow Creek the chance to acclimate itself to a higher level of competition. Now, the real fun begins. 

"I want to see us battle hard," Willow Creek head coach Erin Boling said. "I think there are a lot of opportunities for us to get ahead on these teams, but it's about whether we can hit the ball in the gap if we can make them make plays. I think we can play with both of those teams and all of the teams here. We're in good shape."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Willow Creek pitcher Bridgette Boling slides safely around the Italy catcher in the Little League Softball World Series.

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