When John Ameluxen received a last-minute invitation for his team to fill out the field for a new, star-studded softball tournament, the Chino Hills Ayala coach asked for one hour to get out of a previous commitment.
It was an hour well spent. Ayala showed up last weekend for the inaugural Nike Faster to First tournament in Huntington Beach and created more buzz than a million bees.
Behind the pitching of sophomore Jessica Hall and the hitting of junior shortstop Nani St. Germain, the Bulldogs defeated teams ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 21 in the nation over the first two days and were six outs from beating the fourth-ranked team on Day 3.
Now, the little team that could is at a crossroads.
"Our goals have certainly changed in terms of what we want for the kids," Ameluxen said. "We have to set our goals different after the weekend and refocus our work and our drive and what we can attain . . . reach a littler farther than what we thought possible."
Ayala opened its season with two one-sided losses to Lake Forest El Toro and a scoreless tie against Upland. But in a span of 26 hours, the Bulldogs, 6-4-1 heading into Tuesday's nonleague game against Bishop Amat, became the center of of the high school softball universe.
They did so with a lineup of two seniors, one junior, four sophomores and two freshmen. They not only entrenched themselves among the elite this season but seem set to be a power for at least two more.
Junior pitcher Kamerin May, one of the reasons Corona Santiago began the tournament ranked No. 2 in the nation, came away impressed after a 3-1 loss to Ayala. "We played them last year and beat them, 4-1," she said. "They're a good team. They've gotten a lot better."
Hall, a left-handed power pitcher with a great changeup, gave up only two earned runs in the tournament. In 33 innings, she struck out 27 and walked only two -- both in the fifth game of the weekend, a 3-1 loss to No. 20 Orange El Modena in the third-place game.
"Jessica carried the load for us," Ameluxen said. "Even in that last game, she only gave up two hits and they scored three unearned runs."
St. Germain went nine for 16 with two walks -- both against No. 4 Sacramento Sheldon in a tournament semifinal -- and four home runs, including a two-out, two-run shot in the bottom of the ninth inning that tied the score against No. 1-ranked La Palma Kennedy in a first-round game that Ayala won, 4-3, in 10 innings.
Sophomore right fielder Mary Massei and freshman catcher Taylor Green joined Hall and St. Germain on the all-tournament team.
The Bulldogs' performance was head spinning.
"It was huge," said Hall, who admitted that going into the weekend, she and her teammates were more interested in the school's Sadie Hawkins dance that Saturday night. "I'm still excited.
"Our coaches warned us, told us how we got here" as a last-minute replacement, "and that we should prove them wrong. 'Play your hearts out, and whatever happens, happens.' "
Captivated by their success, the result has been renewed confidence in each other and faith in themselves.
"Yeah, I feel like we won the tournament," Hall said. "We did much better than we thought. It's just different now. The season is gong to be a lot more fun, and a lot more exciting."