Archive for Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Chinstraps and Mouthpieces: Despite team’s prowress, players still teenage girls

July 30, 2003

After covering the Tonganoxie Braves in the AFA B softball nationals last weekend in Lawrence I couldn't help but notice some players' helmets.

On the fronts of most helmets were a player's name or nickname, and stickers often adorned the helmet elsewhere. One player had sticker after sticker of what appeared to be McDonald's logos (probably a huge endorsement already in the works for the star Tonganoxie player).

Another Braves player, however, made it clear that she likes a yellow, porous and absorbent creature who lives in a pineapple under the sea.

Proudly wearing a Spongebob Squarepants sticker on her helmet, Jesse Whittledge stepped up to the plate throughout the weekend with the Nickelodeon character near her noggin. And after visiting my office space Monday, Whittledge realized she had a fellow admirer.

Some might tell me I'm a tad too old to own a Spongebob dodge ball, a Spongebob aquarium, a Spongebob Burger King toy and a Spongebob squeeze bottle, but it's clear that the Tonganoxie team members realize their youthful ages of 12, 13 and 14. Most players who reach the major collegiate and professionals in their sports likely started up in athletics shortly after their final baby teeth moved in. But too often youth get wrapped up in club or traveling teams as Mom and Pop keep on shoving their golden child toward athletic prowess -- even if they can't attain it.

That doesn't seem to be the case for the local softball team. The girls do play or practice year-round, but coach Pat Albert said off-season practice time depends on what school activities the girls have.

The girls enjoy themselves, shouting out various cheers and numerous dances in the dugout, but they also can play ball. After entering last year's nationals with a 34-8 record, the team finished this season at 33-24 after playing most of the season against "A" level teams. In 2001, the Braves went 51-14.

And although they are a competitive bunch, they have formed friendships with other teams.

The Highland Hornets, who Amanda Albert no-hit Friday, made a lengthy 17-hour drive from Medina, Ohio, which sits right outside of Cleveland. Players from both teams exchanged e-mail addresses during the tourney.

"It's neat when the kids can make friends and get close to other teams," Pat Albert said. "I think that's what it's all about.

"I want to win, but I want to have an enjoyable time while I'm there. If they're not having fun, you've gone beyond what you're supposed to be doing."

The players do enjoy themselves, but they all have their moments. After all, they are teenage girls.

"There are still cat fights on the team," Hannah Herrstrom said. "That happens occasionally."

With 42 teams in the 14U tournament and 31 in the 16U tourney, Lawrence had a softball bash at the YSI and Clinton Lake Sports complexes last weekend.

Teams ranged in names from the Monarchs and Baseburners to Rockettes and the Woodshed.

The Rockettes sound more like an '80s female punk band, while the Woodshed sounds arrogant.

But the Edna, Kan., team did take most of its opponents behind the woodshed on its way to a 14U title. Pitcher Samantha Cassell shined during the tournament -- including a 14-strikeout performance against Tonganoxie.

Cassell's team, though, isn't named for its ability to bruise opponents. Instead, the Woodshed is a chain of convenience stores in southeast Kansas.

Usually the Braves take a major road trip each summer to nationals, but this year the team had to go no farther than Lawrence for their tournament. The team, however, won't go empty-handed after finishing in about ninth place at nationals. The team will head to Branson, Mo., in the coming weeks to supplement the journey it would have taken to a national tournament out of state.

With a few weeks off before fall ball starts, the team doesn't take much of a break from softball.

The Braves, though, can live and breathe softball while still saving some oxygen for the social lives of teenage girls.

"The fair, then school starts," Amanda Albert said about her upcoming schedule. "The fair's a good thing. School's not."

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