It's been a once-a-lifetime summer for the girls of the 14U James Gang softball team. Their road National Championship has been paved through hard work, talent, and their infectious never-say-die attitude.
As a young girl watches her first softball game, one moment in the game catches her eye.
It might be a crowd-popping strikeout, an incredible diving catch, or a towering home run that sends the crowd home happy.
"I can do that," she says, not as a declarative brag - but as a self-motivating challenge.
So she steps into her first batting cage - strained knuckles choking the bat, just hoping to hear the satisfying dink sound when her bat hits the ball.
She spends countless summer days, tossing a fluorescent ball back-and-forth with a parent, a friend, sometimes, a wall.
She remembers the feeling of joy when she won her first game.
She also remembers the feeling of dejection when she lost the biggest game of her career.
But through every up-and-down of her young career, she never gives up.
All those moments shape the modern day softball player.
All of those moments have paved the way for the 18 girls on the James Gang 14U softball team to win a National Championship.
For those 18 champions - it has been a once-in-a-lifetime summer marked by a range of moments.
There were moments of frustration - like the June rain washing away multiple tournament games.
There were moments of levity - the clubhouse in-jokes like remixing words of the national anthem to a softball-centric fight song.
There were moments of celebration - when they paraded avenue by avenue in town before being enshrined in City Hall for their State championship.
There were moments of exhaustion - playing 22 games over an eight-day span, including winning a State Championship.
However, moments after Kelsey Grunewald recorded the final out of the team's 9-1 championship-clinching victory over Forest Lake, in the midst of post-game hugs and high-fives, the girls added one more remarkable moment to their blossoming careers.
The moment they became National Champions.
On Sunday, the James Gang 14U softball team won the 2018 Mall of America National Tournament - and the story of the meteoric rise can be summed up in three words.
"Never give up," said Chloe Mickelson. "We believe in each other, and we know that no matter what's happening, there's no reason to give up."
Those three words have been the bedrock of this team.
It's the never-say-die attitude that each player has exhibited throughout their softball careers.
Earlier this summer, in a game against Fairmont where they trailed 6-0, they stormed back to win the game.
"They like to give us heart problems in the dugout," joked coach Bowers. "But there are a resilient bunch of players, and they have no quit."
Their resiliency was proven last Sunday when they won the State tournament through the loser's bracket.
"We don't like to take the easy way," joked Alli Malmgren. "We feel that we've earned every championship and win along the way."
The group certainly didn't take the easy route to the championship, after defeating Andover McClintock and Rosemount in pool play, James Gang lost an extra-inning game to Morris.
"We beat ourselves in that game," said Addie Bowers. "But we've been in the loser's bracket before, and we just knew we had to keep on winning.
The loser's bracket, any team's eleventh-hour, is where the James Gang girls' have shined all summer.
They won three tournaments this summer in loser's bracket - and some of the players were on the St. James softball team that made an incredible playoff run this spring.
The girls took their unwavering spirits back to the diamond and unleashed a 13-run onslaught against Lakeville.
Each must-win game lit a fire under the hungry James Gang players.
In their next game, they beat Bloomington Blast 11-3. Then, a 10-4 win over Soderville concluded Saturday's slate of games.
While Sunday is often known as a day of rest, James Gang was busy.
In a 9 a.m. contest, they toppled Northfield 11-2. Then, they got revenge on Morris, eliminating them 5-2.
Into their third game of the day, the train kept rolling as they dispatched of Mondovi 13-4.
The Mondovi win set up an encounter with New Ulm, a team that has been the James Gang foil for the past few summers.
"We needed to beat them, we had to beat them," said Taylor Soderman.
In a pitching-premium, Addie Bowers laced a double to right, bringing up Torri Mohwinkel.
With a summer's worth of retribution on her mind, Mohwinkel hit a line drive that careened over the second baseman's head, scoring Bowers to unseat their rival and face undefeated Forest Lake in the championship.
By the time the clock reached 6 p.m. that Sunday, James Gang was hoisting the National Championship banner.
"To be apart of a team that accomplished something special to the community is incredible," said Maddie Brey in a phone interview.
For each girl, becoming a National Championship carries some weight.
For a few, it's a reward for all their hard work and efforts.
For a few, it's another notch under their belt.
But for all of them, it's a realization of the self-motivating challenge of the young softball player who once said, "I can do that."
Speaking of challenges, before taking the field at the 2018 Mall of America Nationals, 14U James Gang coaches Luke Bowers and Brent Trickel made a motivating challenge to the girls: if they won the tournament, they would swallow a live fish.
After the final out of the championship game, Bowers and Trickel kept their word and swallowed two neon tetra fish - aptly named James and Gang.
While the girls made their coaches eat live fish, this summer, they've made all of their doubters eat crow.
Your 2018 National Champions:
Coach Luke Bowers
Coach Brent Trickel,