Sunday, April 29, 2001

Girls softball team plays in Cuba

Invitation to Havana is a first

By Ryan Waldheger
Enquirer contributor

        Members of the Cincinnati Elite 14-and-under Blue Team expect a lot of road trips. Accustomed to distant tournament sites like Michigan and Georgia, this fast-pitch softball club has journeyed as far as Florida to tangle with top competition.

        But never before have they needed to pack passports.

        The team left last Sunday to become the first-ever U.S. girls fast-pitch softball team to compete in Havana. The girls and eight coaches and parents return to Ohio this weekend.

        “It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Elite member Lauren Bartlett of Milford. “I'm really excited. We're the first girls team to go, and it's neat that they asked us instead of another team.”

        Compiling a 54-2 record against the nation's best last year, the Elite captured ASA and WASA World Series titles and the NSA state championship.Then, wrapping up their season with a Thanksgiving weekend tournament at the Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., the Elite dazzled a USA-Cuba Sports Experience official in attendance, prompting the invitation.

A driven team
        Head coach Jim Donovan of Hamilton credited his team of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders from the Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati area.

        “We've got a great group of female athletes,” Mr. Donovan said. “And just about every girl on our team is a straight-A student. They're high achievers.”

        But it's their year-round commitment to softball that provided them with the chance to play in Cuba. Immersed in an unrelenting schedule of practices during the summer, the girls' training moves to inside a Fairfield warehouse when the mercury drops.

        “They're all very dedicated,” said Brenda Stock of Waynesville, whose daughter Mollie trains seven days a week, like many of the Elite. “I think they've learned that if you work hard, good things can come from it.”

        With a trip price tag of about $2,000 per traveler, Mrs. Stock said her daughter added one more activity to her already busy schedule — baby-sitting. “She needed to earn money for the trip.”

        In addition to the games, Mr. Donovan said, the team planned to visit a tropical rain forest and beaches and see the Cuban National Fast Pitch Softball Team. There was a chance that the two teams might swap a few players and conduct a brief scrimmage.

More than sports
        The opportunity was made possible through an agreement between the U.S. and Cuban governments with the USA-Cuba organization. Mr. Donovan hopes that the experience can transcend softball and truly be the cultural exchange that the organization desires.

        “It's really about the people,” Mr. Donovan said. “I hope the girls realize that people are pretty much the same wherever you go. I hope they touch lives and that they will have gratitude for their own. I'm sure they'll leave with a lifetime of memories.“


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