The Thunder Stole My Heart

2016 Thunder 1st Row: Smiley, Hannah M, Mia, Pop Up Queen, Dirt Girl, Money 2nd Row: Gabbie, Kiley, Morgan, Christina, Addie, Hannah H 3rd Row: Coach John, Coach Eric, Coach Luke, Head Coach Brad

2016 NYO Thunder
1st Row: Smiley, Hannah M, Mia, Pop Up Queen, Dirt Girl, Money
2nd Row: Gabbie, Kiley, Morgan, Christina, Addie, Hannah H
3rd Row: Coach John, Coach Eric, Coach Luke, Head Coach Brad

This story does not fit the mold of prior stories I have written.  I will not be going back in time to jog your memories concerning college football rivalries, the 1995 Atlanta Braves or the birth of the Masters.  Please indulge me as I write about the essence of sports, the purity of the game, the love of the game just because of the game. No mention of big egos, jealous players, or cheating you often read about in sports articles.  This tale involves twelve young ladies, all between seven and nine years of age, their coaches, and the game of softball.  Before I continue, I must disclose that one of the young ladies is my daughter, so this narrative is very personal.

Our story begins about six weeks ago on a softball field similar to that of thousands across the country.  The young ladies had just completed their recreation (rec) league schedule and were about to embark on an All-Star season, the first for the vast majority.  All of these girls had talent, some more than others. Some of the girls knew some of the others from the just-completed rec season, some knew just one or two.   They were equally excited and apprehensive; not sure what lay in front of them.  All they knew for certain was that they were going to be teammates for the next six weeks on a team called the Thunder, a name designated by their head coach, Brad.  In fastpitch softball parlance, the Thunder was a “B” team.  The league also had an “A” team comprised of girls supposedly more talented.  The Thunder had to compete in tournaments against mostly “A” teams, with a few “B” teams scattered here and there.

So Coach Brad, Coach John, Coach Luke and Coach Eric set other goals besides victories.  All the coaches had achieved success with prior teams, understood the game, knew how to teach the game and have fun doing it.  The Thunder won-loss record would be secondary to motivating the girls to learn the game and have fun.  This strategy became more of a success than even the coaches imagined.

I cannot speak for the rest of the parents, but I had a rather uneasy feeling as we proceeded down the path of two to four practices a week and three tournaments, each lasting Friday through Sunday.  I frequently asked myself questions like:  What have I gotten my daughter and my family into (make no mistake, I was the impetus behind the pursuit of an All-Star season)?; How would my daughter hold up?  Could she really commit to such a schedule?  Would I ruin softball for her forever?

I made sure I attended as many practices as I could and all of the tournament games.  One by one I got to know the rest of the parents.  Honestly, I can say each and every one of them is a wonderful person who wanted the best not only for their daughter but the other girls as well.  I consider myself fortunate to have spent as much time as I did with them. However, their daughters are the main characters here and what characters they were!

Kate came to the team known as Smiley because she smiled all the time—certainly an appropriate nickname.  She became our pitcher because of her vacuum-like fielding and pinpoint throws to first (note:  at this level, the coaches still pitch to their own batters).  Mia secured our second base position and could wallop the ball.  It seemed you could always depend on her for a couple of RBIs during each game.  Addie became the everyday shortstop and was fearless when scorching grounders came her way.   She always seemed to know what to do in any situation. Hannah M generally played third base.  Unlike Kate, Hannah M did not smile a lot and the team chided her for that.  But boy you should have seen her face when she caught a line drive to secure a victory for the team—grinning from ear to ear!  I must admit that I almost dove from the scorer’s tower onto the field after that catch.

Rylie was the only seven year old on the team but played well beyond her years.  She earned the nickname “Money” because any fly ball within 10-15 yards of her would drop deftly into the center of her glove.  Hannah H had probably the cheeriest disposition of any of the girls.  Nothing seemed to bother her and she played four or five positions with equal aplomb.  Kiley may have been the oldest on the team at the ripe old age of nine and was clearly the steadying influence.  She also played a mean first base.  Like many of the girls, Gabbie played several positions well.  I’ll never forget watching her run the bases with those long legs.  I predict, if she decides to pursue another sport, that she will have a successful career in track and field at the upper levels of that sport.

Christina, like Hannah M, had a quiet, reserved demeanor.  Everyone loved her.  You could just tell she loved playing softball.  Mallory has the face of an angel but fielded like the devil.  Similar to Rylie, Mallory would catch any pop up on the infield or in the outfield and would generally win the pop up contests during the practices.  This ability earned her the nickname of “Pop Up Queen.”  Morgan played multiple positions and played them all very well.  She also could hit some wicked line drives.  Last but not least, Katie.  She played with abandon.  Most of her time was spent in the outfield or behind the plate.  For some reason, she loved to scatter the dirt with her hands or feet while on the infield during practice and sometimes during the games.  Consequently, she earned the nickname, “Dirt Girl.”

The coaches must have been fit to be tied during the first couple of weeks of practice.  The girls would counter a great play with a not-so-great play.  Easy pop ups would be dropped or missed.  Simple grounders would roll under their gloves between their legs. Throws would not come close to their targets and how many times did the coaches have to tell the girls not to run after a ball was caught in the air—“If it’s in the air, you do not dare.”  Sometimes I couldn’t watch, but the coaches, undaunted, would coach on.  Drill after drill—all made fun through some kind of game or competition—strengthened the skills of the girls over time.  Everyone’s fielding, throwing, catching, base running and hitting improved.

As time went on, you could see it their eyes, in their steps, and on their faces.  The girls were genuinely having fun, but more importantly, the girls were bonding.  Dirt Girl, Smiley, Money, Pop Up Queen and all the rest learned to love one another.  They truly enjoyed being around each other.  In fact, they didn’t want practice or the tournaments to end.  None of them complained about a lack of playing time or what position they were playing, as many pros do.  None of them became envious of another.  None of them boasted about being a better player than another.  Oh my, would it possible for this type of behavior to permeate the pro leagues?  I think not.

The girls only won two of the twelve tournament games.  The coaches and parents knew it would be difficult to battle with “A” caliber teams, some having played together for months.  The emphasis was not on winning—what a wonderful concept!  It was on playing the best you could and having fun, and the girls did just that.  Oh, do not be fooled, we all relished the two victories—both against other “B” level teams.  Squeals and cheers of joy emanated from the girls, coaches and parents alike after the two wins.  You would have thought we had just won the seventh game of the World Series.  In fact, we are the first “B” team from our softball organization to ever win two tournament games, and that is indeed something of which to be proud!

These young ladies showed me the pure essence of sports. They played the game for the love of the game, for the camaraderie with their teammates, for the love of their coaches and parents.  Even now, my eyes are tearing up.  How could twelve little girls capture the essence of a team sport like fastpitch softball and my heart?  I don’t know for sure, but they did.  Boy, did they!

Now, I must confess that Dirt Girl is my little daughter and cannot express in words how proud I am of her, dirt and all.  What a wonderful six weeks.  I want to thank the girls, the coaches and the parents for an experience I will never forget, and you know darn well the girls will never forget.  Oh what a joy to watch a game played the way it is supposed to be played.  Cheers to the Thunder, the girls who stole my heart!

Comments

  1. Jim – This is beautiful. It was such a wonderful experience for our family as well. Now I need a tissue!

Speak Your Mind

*