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Thunder heads to Vegas for National Championship
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BROOKLET - Every Tuesday and Thursday this summer, the East Georgia Thunder fast-pitch softball team could be found fielding ground balls and taking batting practice on the relatively quiet fields of Stilson Park.

Next week, the scene will be drastically different as the girls travel more than 2,000 miles away to take part in the USA/ASA National Championship in Las Vegas.

The Thunder will join 175 other teams, eight from Georgia, in Nevada next week for nine days of softball under the desert sun.

Now in its fifth year, the traveling 18-and-under team has assembled some of the most promising talent in east Georgia.

"We have 13 girls from about nine different counties - from as far away as Laurens, to right here in Bulloch," said head coach Charlie Salzman. "I believe we have the best talent from around the area, without a doubt."

All five rising seniors on the club have signed scholarships to play for college teams in the fall.

A perfect first half of the season, including four consecutive tournament victories and a first place at the national qualifying tournament in Atlanta, secured a spot in next week's championship for the Thunder.

Having earned the bid, East Georgia can lay claim to being the first area team to ever reach the national tournament.

For Salzman, the success is no surprise.

"These girls work," he said. "They have a lot of fun and love it, but they work hard."

The work has paid off all season as the Thunder have won nearly every tournament they have participated in, and finished no lower than third in any of them.

They have seen action in Jacksonville, Fla., Chattanooga, Greenville, S.C., Savannah, Atlanta and other cities throughout the south.

Since guaranteeing a spot in the national championship, the team has played mostly showcase tournaments, giving college scouts a chance to evaluate rising talent while also providing the girls with a chance to improve their play.

Recent tournaments have only fueled the team's excitement heading into Las Vegas.

"We play good defense, hit well and have great pitching. I believe these girls have as good a chance as any team from the east coast to do well," said Salzman. "We hope we can get some good draws and some breaks."

Tournament play officially gets under way Monday, with the championship game scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

For Casey Johnson, Thunder pitcher and second baseman, a successful showing in Las Vegas is very attainable.

"I'm really excited. I think we will do well," she said. "We just have to stay focused."