By Billy Byler
One last summer ball tournament in Savannah won't soon be forgotten by the Evans Dominators. The 16-U fastpitch softball travel team took second place overall in the World Fastpitch Connection World Series B Classon July 18-22.
It was how they got there and who got them there that made all the difference.
The Dominators are led by local softball head coach Ralph "Tuga" Pearson. He has tallied 13 years of coaching experience with the past seven years in travel ball, but he couldn't make the trip to Savannah for the final tournament of the year.
"He was diagnosed with cancer right before that tournament," assistant coach Tony McNair said. "It's in his brain and his lungs."
The news devastated a Dominators team, which is made up of girls from Greenbrier, Harlem, Lakeside, Glascock County and Briarwood high schools. With brain surgery looming over their head coach, the girls left for the tournament without "coach Tuga" with them.
Starting center fielder Elizabeth Gaston has been under Pearson's leadership since she joined the team in eighth grade. The idea of playing without him in the dugout was overwhelming.
"It was really hard for me because it was my last summer ball game," she said. "I always said I would never play summer ball for any other coach. Really, I thought there was no hope for us."
It seemed that way when the Dominators lost their first game of the tournament and took an early trip to the losers' bracket. Instead of giving up for good, the group of girls rallied around the spirit of their absent coach.
"When I was in the game I was just thinking that I was doing it for Tuga," Kimberly Johnson said. "He's not a regular coach. He's more like a friend."
That's the mind-set the rest of the team adopted too. Whether it was a collective will to win or just strong play, something clicked. The girls won their elimination game in the first round of the losers' bracket. They won again in the second round. Again and again and again the wins kept rolling in for the Dominators. Each victory ended with a phone call back to their coach.
"Emotions don't describe it," Pearson said. "Did it surprise me? It did, but it didn't. I knew they wanted it."
By the end of the tournament, the Dominators had survived a trip through the entire loser's bracket and made it to the championship game. They came up short of a World Series title, but the unlikely rally had a far-reaching impact.
"After the tournament one of the umpires came up and told us he was a Methodist minister," Gaston said. "He said he had been following us and that he was going to put coach Tuga on his church's prayer list. He prayed for us there, and I think that made us all break down into tears."
The Dominators returned home with a second-place trophy and presented it to Pearson the next week. A few days later, he underwent brain surgery to remove the cancerous tumor.
The results were just as positive as the softball tournament.
"They got the tumor out of the brain, and now he's at home resting," McNair said Monday morning. "They're going to start him on radiation treatments for his lungs soon."
Pearson still has a long road to recovery to beat the lung cancer, but many of the coaches, players and fans who have visited him at home since the surgery commented on his upbeat attitude.
"I went by and visited him the other afternoon," McNair said. "All he could talk about was a softball tournament at Myrtle Beach in November.
"We feel like all those prayers might have been answered."
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