Lifelong friends. Some dance moves. And maybe a little bit of Spanish, too.
The members of ASA/USA girls 14A national championship-bound Sterling Steam 98 Gold team have been collecting a lot more than trophies over the years.
That's why, as the girls prep for another shot at a prestigious title, among the most important things they're packing for their work trip in Bloomington is gift bags that will represent the Sauk Valley. The bags are also a proverbial handshake, proposing friendship to those in the opposing dugout.
"Friendships and relationships with the other team and your teammates has a really big impact on the game," first baseman Erin Stroup said. "Playing people you do like is a lot better than playing people you don't like. Even if you lose, it's still fun, because you're playing the game you love."
Stroup is one of the nine members of the team who were also members of the squad that won the 2011 Little League World Series in Portland, Ore. The 14U team's coach, Ed Long, assisted head coach Eric Staples for the LLWS squad and his daughter, Shannon, was on the team. You might remember her as a key member of the Sterling varsity team that recently made a run at the IHSA state tournament.
The Steam's outfielder/catcher is one of several members who fondly remembers riding the bus in Portland with a team from Puerto Rico. Teams had limited success teaching the other its respective language.
"But we learned a couple of dance moves," Shannon Long said. "They like to dance and mess around a lot. They're a fun team."
"That was awesome," said Emily "Boogie" Berogan, who also noted that opening every gift bag from an opponent is eye-opening. "We're all from different places, so it's cool to get random things from where they live and see their culture."
Teams tend to include pictures of the players with their names, and Facebook friendships are born. Stroup says she still hears from the Puerto Rican players on Facebook, and even bumped into an "opponent" from California while on vacation.
"I was out of town, and she actually remembered me when I saw her when we were out to eat," Stroup said. "She said something to me, and we were talking for a while."
ASA ball is obviously a golden opportunity for young athletes to state their case to play in college.
"Representing the Sauk Valley is very important," Shannon Long said. "There's teams from all around, and you never know who might be there – college coaches; there could be exposure – so we have to show off what we have here."
Speaking of which, Coach Long has no problem admitting that standing out in the best-gift-bag competition is always on the docket.
"There are always the teams that go above the rest, that have that one thing that everyone is talking about," Long said. "We want to be that team."
So the team – nay, the community – finds a way to circumvent the tournament's stipulation that the bags' contents must add up to $10 or less. Aside from sunflower seeds and Big League chew that the parents buy, everything the Steam players will share with their opponents was donated – from a stylish Sauk Valley Community College bag full of memorabilia to carmel corn courtesy of Wally's Popcorn.
Kendra Harrington, mother of Cheyenne, helps organize the bags and says there are several donors who are still planning on joining the list, and that she would love to hear from more organizations. There's already seven, CGH, Dana, United Health Care, Halo and the Sauk Chamber of Commerce getting in on the lovefest.
As for the team's prospects in Bloomington, Coach Long hopes his girls can crack the top 10. As of Thursday, 128 teams were listed on the qualifiers' list at normal.softball.org. The brackets will be revealed Wednesday at noon, and play opens Monday, July 29.
"Being there all week is the plan," Coach Long said. "We've got reservations for the whole week."
His team first began practicing – let alone playing games – after the varsity Golden Warriors' run at a state title the second weekend in June. Also parlaying a taste of IHSA into the summer is Milledgeville's Ally Bush, who starred as a freshman on the Missiles' first 1A state champion team.
Since the high school smoke cleared, Coach Long has entered his team into several 16U and 18U tournaments to prepare them for a field chock full of warm-weather teams that play year-round. The Steam compiled a 17-5 record, won a tournament in Pekin and finished second in an 18U event in the Quad Cities before running the table by going 6-0 at state 2 weeks ago.
It marked the last – and only – chance to qualify for nationals, the other opportunity falling by the wayside because it took place the same weekend as the IHSA tournament.
"It was a great problem to have," Long said.
The ballcoach gets a little misty when he reflects on the girls who have played together since they were 8. He watched the LLWS DVD for the first time in a while a few days ago.
"These girls have grown up so much in 2 years, it's crazy," Long said. "It's such a good group of girls."
"Every softball player, we're all family," his daughter, Shannon, added. "We can all relate, and we have things in common. The World Series really showed me that there are teams all around the world that have things in common with you."
Meet the Steam
Player Age Hometown Position
Emily Berogan 15 Sterling 2B
Kylie Burkett 14 Sterling OF
Ally Bush 14 Milledgeville P/SS
Sydney Davis 15 Clinton, Iowa 2B/SS
Hannah Escamilla 15 Sterling SS/3B
Abri Hale 15 Sterling OF/SS
Cheyenne Harrington 14 Sterling P/3B
Shannon Long 15 Sterling OF/C
Lexy Staples 14 Sterling P/3B
Erin Stroup 14 Sterling 1B
Nadia Trujillo 15 Sterling C/2B
Manager: Ed Long
Coach: Tory Escamilla