LOS ANGELES -- All season long, the NFL Network softball team heard the critics -- they were too soft, they were too inexperienced, they were too drunk. Thursday night, the motley crew of editors, producers and writers seized the chance to prove the haters wrong.
Brooke Cersosimo pitched seven strong innings and Dre Quezada made an incredible shoestring catch to lead The Shield to a 12-10 victory over the top-seeded Nooners and an improbable L.A. city league championship.
The Shield didn't waste any time, plating five runs in the first behind RBI doubles by Tony Garcia and Marc Istook and an inside-the-park home run from team captain Dan "Handzome" Hanzus.
The NFL squad extended its lead with two more runs in the second when Garcia bashed a two-run inside-the-park homer to left. It wasn't just his bat that did the damage, as the Pepperdine standout flashed the leather on defense, spearing a line drive that seemed destined for the outfield.
"I can't believe that at one point in the year, I thought I was better than Tony," a sheepish Chris Wesseling admitted after the game.
The Nooners, who were 11-1 going into the game and had destroyed The Shield in their regular-season matchup, weren't going to go quietly though, managing two runs in the second and two more in the third to make it 7-4.
The Shield got back on the board in the fourth when Patrick Crawley singled, Brandon McGuiness singled and a Nooners throwing error allowed both runners to score, making it 9-4.
Nooners slugger "Money Shot" launched a two-run homer -- his second one of the game -- in the bottom of the fourth to get his team back within three. They would also get two more runs in the fifth to pull within a run. With a runner on third and nobody out, Cersosimo proceeded to buckle down and get out of the inning, stranding the potential tying run 60 feet away.
Clinging to the one-run lead, The Shield scored twice more in the sixth. However, the Nooners promptly responded, scoring a run in the bottom of the inning and loading the bases with two outs. A soft liner to right looked certain to drop until a charging Quezada made an incredible shoestring catch to end the inning.
"That was the game right there. She doesn't make that catch, we lose," said Shona "Brassy" Holagh, whose clutch double in the semifinal helped propel her team to the championship game.
The Shield scored an insurance run in the seventh behind Hanzus' fourth RBI of the game. The Nooners had no intention of going quietly in their final chance, scoring a run on an inside-the-park home run. Down 12-10 with one out, they proceeded to get runners on first and second. With the potential winning run at the plate, the Nooners batter smashed a liner to third. McGuiness snagged it, stepped on third for the force and threw to first to complete the double play and end the game.
The Shield had been protected. And the championship trophy would be making its way to the NFL Network newsroom.
"When we started, I didn't know what to expect and this team just got better and better and eventually you started to get the feeling something special was going on with this group. But I could never have imagined what happened tonight," an emotional Hanzus said as he hoisted the championship trophy. "I'm just so proud of everybody."
"You never question the heart of a champion," superfan Gregg Rosenthal added.