VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The championship game of the 2019 RBI Softball World Series will be played on Thursday, but Valarie Orona collected the first big prize on Wednesday.
Orona, a member on the Angels RBI team from California, was shocked when her name was announced as the winner of the Jennie Finch Empowerment Award presented by Arm and Hammer, with Finch herself making the presentation.
With all eight teams sitting on the clay in front of home plate on Field 7, the players listened closely as Finch spoke to them about the importance of the award and what it represented.
A first baseman who will play at Cypress College this season, Orona had to double-check to make sure she was the award’s recipient.
“I was surprised. I was like, ‘Whoa.’ That was crazy. I was looking around and going, ‘Is it me?’ and everyone looked at me. Then I realized it was me,” said Orona, whose squad finished fourth in the tournament.
“It’s an honor to receive that award given by Jennie Finch herself.”
A $5,000 donation to the MLB Youth Foundation was made in Orona’s name, and the 17-year-old Anaheim native will be a guest of Finch’s and make an on-field appearance in Game 4 of the World Series.
Added Nancy Ortega, Orona’s mother: “To me, looking at her accomplishments and her goals, this is something she was looking forward to.”
A premier ambassador for softball, Finch won a College World Series championship with Arizona in 2001, and three years later, she snared an Olympic gold medal in Athens, Greece.
“What I love most about the award is what it embodies,” Finch said. “It’s not about skillset, per se, it’s deeper than that. It goes to a champion on and off the field. Just the way they lead. [Valarie] is more of a silent leader, which I think often gets overlooked in society.
“She’s done a great job and does the right thing. She’s grateful and leads by the example that she sets.”
Major League Baseball and Church and Dwight this year unveiled the new Jennie Finch Empowerment Award, which annually honors four young women who demonstrate powerful characteristics such as leadership, motivation, commitment, humility and integrity. Each of the four winners have been chosen from the following softball-based events affiliated with MLB: Softball Breakthrough Series, Jennie Finch All-Star Classic, Elite Development Invitational and the RBI World Series.
The winners have been selected by an MLB-led blue-ribbon panel headlined by Finch, who serves as an MLB Youth Softball Ambassador.
Award winners will receive a trip to the World Series presented by YouTube TV, where they will be accompanied by Finch and recognized on field prior to a Fall Classic game. Additionally, Arm and Hammer will donate $20,000 to the nonprofit MLB Youth Foundation.
Thursday’s championship matchup at 9 a.m. ET will be a rematch of a winner’s bracket game from Wednesday morning between Houston Astros RBI and Harrisburg RBI Softball.
Houston improved to 6-0 in the tournament with a 6-2 win over Harrisburg, sending the Texas team to the title game.
Right-hander Yasmine Rivera earned the win by scattering six hits in tossing the complete game. She fanned three and didn’t issue a walk.
Leadoff hitter Alyssa Woods drove in three runs, scored once and stole a base. Turiya Coleman drove in a two runs with a double, and Mia Garza slugged a solo homer.
However, it was Rivera’s right arm and the club’s defense ruled the day and sent Harrisburg to an elimination game.
“Our defense was solid, and the pitching was great,” Houston coach Vincent Villareal Jr. said. “This was probably one of the best games she’s pitched for us.”
Houston will start the other half of its lefty-righty, 1-2 rotation -- left-hander Dani Moreno -- in the title game.
Harrisburg rebounded with a 4-0 win over Rays RBI Tampa, which had kept the game at 1-0 before the Pennsylvania team scored three runs in the bottom of the sixth.
Starting pitcher Courtney Coppersmith was dominant, allowing just three hits in the shutout. The southpaw struck out 11 and walked two.
Leadoff hitter Jenna Mongold put the game well out of reach with a two-run homer in the sixth for the final runs.
“We’re going to have to do a better job hitting the ball,” Harrisburg coach Mike Stepp said of Thursday’s one-game rematch for the title. “Defensively, we have a couple of things to clean up, but we can do that through discussion.”
Stepp said he will rely on Coppersmith again in the title game, saying, “I hope she has something left in the tank for them.”