It’s a word the team uses to express their companionable relationship with one another, shortstop Ali Hernandez explains. It describes their feelings of bonding. Functioning as a unit. Collaborating.
It was only seven short weeks ago that the team, comprised of 11 of the more talented 13 to 14-year-old softball players that the region has to offer, came together for the first time. In early June, tryouts were held to select Sparks athletes to represent the first ever SCLL All-Star Junior Softball team and the city’s only all-star softball team in their age group since SCLL’s integration of a local fast pitch league.
After just under two months of near daily practices, fundraisers, dozens of pick-up games and two trial run tournaments, the girls will spend the next eight days in Tuscan, Arizona taking on their primary objective as a team: representing the City of Sparks in the Western Regional Little League Softball Tournament, a qualifying tournament for the Junior Little League Softball World Series.
Although this team is unique because of its unprecedented opportunity to represent the Reno/Sparks area in the Western Regional tournament, Coach Jesse Hon believes that its true distinction from other teams in the region, and other teams he’s coached, lies in their camaraderie.
“We’re just a big softball family. I’m surrounded by sisters,” Hernandez said. “We were opponents before, but now we’re a team.”
Almost immediately after meeting for the first time, the girls started forging friendships that have remained impenetrable throughout the summer. Coach Hon said there’s a kinship that’s resulted in requests that the entire team share a room in Arizona, practice six days a week instead of his originally intended three, and most importantly, he’s got a team that functions seamlessly on an interpersonal level. The girls’ true potential as a team lies in their enormous devotion, he says, not only to the sport and to the game, but to each other.
“It was kind of cool that they started bonding right off the bat. They’re all characters, and a really good group of girls. They’ve been pretty much inseparable,” Coach Hon said. “They’re gelling right where they need to be. They’ve gotten faster, stronger, quicker – they’ve energized.”
Indeed, the girls’ enthusiasm for the sport manifested itself before they even made the team. In order to participate in all-stars, athletes were required to try out for the team in the midst of the regular spring softball season. Upon making the cut, and showing up for practice only a few days after their last seasonal game, the girls made a conscious decision to sacrifice their summer, and maybe even part of their school year, for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete for a spot in the Junior Little League Softball World Series.
“This will be something that they remember for the rest of their lives. There are only 11 girls in the state of Nevada who are doing this, and it’s these girls right here,” Hon said. “They are the pioneers.”
In Arizona, the girls will be competing against teams from across the West Coast, many of whom have been traveling and practicing together for years, in a series of five to eight bracket-style games. Should they win; the girls will almost immediately travel to Kirkland, Wash. for the week-long World Series tournament, which just happens to coincide with the first week of the Washoe County School year.
Although it’s been a demanding task, the girls wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
“It might get tiring to practice almost every day, but it’s worth it,” catcher and pitcher Tatianna Hon said. “I feel like we’re going to do well. Obviously, I want to win, but I have confidence in this team that we can actually do it.”
The athletes aren’t the only ones working hard. Day in and day out, the girls’ parents chauffer to and from practices, provide snacks, help with fundraisers and raise community awareness about the team. Through their efforts, the girls acquired donated gifts and souvenirs from the city and local businesses that will enable them to participate in a traditional gift exchange with other regional teams at the tournament.
Parent Sandy Alderman says it’s all in an effort to support the girls’ ambition toward such a unique opportunity.
“Daily they’ve given up their summer. They’ve been here every day. They’ve done car washes and fundraisers. Every day they put in the effort,” Alderman said. “I’m excited for [their tournament]. I hope that they get everything out of it that they hope to and realize what kind of an opportunity this is.”
From the beginning, Coach Hon has managed the team under the model of “positivity over possibility,” believing in his players and encouraging them to believe in themselves. Despite the obstacles they face in terms of playing more seasoned teams, Hon truly believes that the Sparks Centennial girls have what it takes to emerge victorious. It’s not a matter of “if” they win the Western Regional tournament, he says, but a matter of “when.”
“They’ve got to believe that they can do it. I put it in their heads every day … If you set your mind to something, and every girl sets their mind to it, they can do it,” Coach Hon said. “The girls are excited. Every day they’re getting better and better.”
Whatever happens in Arizona, Coach Hon is proud to have coached SCLL’s first-ever Juniors all-star team. The most important thing, he stresses, is that both the girls and the community recognize the extraordinary effort the team put in over the last two months.
“Every day has just been positive. Even with one win, or two wins, as long as they learn something and it is an unforgettable experience for them, it will be well worth it,” he said. “I am just very proud of them. I learn every day from these girls, and the experience has been fun and well worth it.”
Tatianna Hon and Hernandez share a similar sentiment. Although they’re beyond excited for the chance to play in Arizona and are hoping for the best possible outcome, they both acknowledge that in the end, representing Nevada and competing with their “softball family” means more than the outcome of the games.
“This is what we’ve been working at every day, so it’s really exciting to be able to play in Arizona … We’re the first softball team from Nevada ever going, and we’re representing the whole state for the first time in girls little league softball,” Hernandez said. “I want to win. I think we all want to win. But I’m also looking forward to being a role model (for younger girls) and just being with my team.”