The 8U HARTbreakers, a local softball team of 8- and 9-year old girls, hit it out of the park last month, taking second place at the American Fastpitch Association’s Southwestern Nationals.
Through hard work and dedication, the team overcame challenges, finding a way to still safely compete amid the current health crisis.
When spring season was canceled in March due to the pandemic, doom and gloom set in for the HARTbreakers, many of whom had been playing together since they were 5 and 6 years old, coach Michael Merrilees said.
It was then that Merrilees, whose daughter Juliette is also on the team, recognized how important coming together as a team was to each of the girls.
“It’s just my happy place,” Naina Melendec said of the sport. “It’s really fun.”
“It’s just fun to have a team that you’re all friends with and that you guys already know each other from like a long time ago,” added Sunnie Wheeler. “I love watching my teammates play.”
The girls just wanted to be back together, and when some restrictions were eased in May, they were able to do just that.
“Obviously, softball’s unique in the fact that it’s socially distanced to begin with, but we wanted to be safe in what we were doing,” Merrilees said.
Though their first practice was a bit awkward at first due to health restrictions, social distancing and masks, it didn’t take the girls long to get back into the swing of things.
“It wasn’t our normal practice, but we had to make due with what we had,” Merrilees said. “It was funny, (because) I literally allowed the girls to sit there and talk for an hour — that was what they missed. That was a cool thing as a coach to see is (that) it wasn’t really softball, it was the friendships and the interaction with each other that they really missed.”
The girls agreed, with Savannah Foulds adding, “It felt a little weird at first, but then it got a lot better. … It felt really fun and (back to) normal.”
Juliette Merrilees also agreed, adding, “It was a really happy feeling because I hadn’t seen them in a long time.”
The team began practicing, catching up on lost time before traveling to Arizona to compete for the first time that season in June and finishing fourth in a tournament there.
Then in August, they had the opportunity to travel to Utah for a national travel ball tournament.
“We’re just a little rec(reation) all-star team, and we knew we were going to be facing travel teams out there,” Merrilees said.
All the same, everything they’d been working toward that summer came together, and the girls were on fire, playing back-to-back games and even beating an undefeated team.
“The belief in their ability got stronger, the trust in their teamwork got stronger, everything just started clicking for them, and it was really fun to just sit back and watch,” Merrilees added.
Pitcher Brianna Jahng remembers playing against a team she’d played before who she’d heard had called her a bad pitcher.
“It made me furious, so I pitched all my guts,” she said, adding that they ended up with a 15-0 mercy-rule win.
In their final game, the HARTbreakers again faced the same undefeated team, continuing to battle, even though the other team had a nine-run lead in the second inning.
Falling just three runs short in the end, the girls had not only the other team and their parents cheering them on but also other coaches.
“We played with the best of the best and played with HART,” Merrilees wrote in a letter to the girls. “You played the game in a way that had opponents scared, but more importantly cheering you on in the end.”
For Mila Zolriasatain, not only was it fun, but she was also very proud of her team’s accomplishments.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a very important moment for me,” she added.
Merrilees agreed, adding, “Win, lose or draw, it’s a lifetime experience that these girls will never, never forget. As a coach, to hear the words that were given to us, forget about how we did in the tournament, that’s winning the World Series for me. I won the World Series just based off of the way that they played.”
On Sunday, the team presented their trophy to Julie Creps, softball commissioner of William S. Hart Baseball & Softball, with a special appearance by firefighters from Fire Station 126, who delivered the girls their championship rings.
“The look on some of these girls’ faces was just crazy when the firefighter got out of the truck and said, ‘I heard there’s a team on fire. I have a special delivery of some rings’ — it was like seeing Santa Claus,” Merrilees added, chuckling.