Beyond the Game

A quivering lip. An excited voice. A remarkable attitude. A stoic front.

Four interviews, contrasting responses, each leaving me respecting the subject a little more than before.

It provided insight into four softball players whose seasons were marked by success, hope and tragedy.

And as I watched Pacifica's Amanda Freed grow as a person and a player, I had the good fortune of chronicling her successes.

And though she still had one more game to pitch as a high school player, the image that sticks with me is a private moment in a room full of people, her having just been named the first Gatorade Circle of Champions softball recipient.

She had just finished three television interviews after receiving the national award. But to me, "national" seems such a generic description. The question demanded illumination.

Can you put into perspective what it means to be recognized as the best player out of everyone who plays softball in the United States?

That's when the lip quivered, as though suddenly she had come to realize what all the hard work had meant, to be the best player out of everyone who plays softball in the United States.

She didn't say anything at first. After a protracted silence, when she finally spoke, I believed her.

"I'm speechless."

Which is not at all like Irvine's Edel Leyden, whose high-pitched voice rose even more as she described her mother's impending American citizenship from Ireland, where Edel lived her first six years. Her father had already become a citizen, and when Margaret Leyden became an American on June 5, Edel, 17, became one too. It was necessary, because a new Amateur Softball Assn. rule prohibits non-citizens from participating.

"Now I have all the luxuries of life," she said. "I can play in Ireland and the U.S.!"

Laguna Hills' Stephanie Bisera is lucky to be playing at all. By her own admission, she should have died from brain surgeries when she was 11 and 15. This, her senior season, was ended when she discovered a tumor larger than a cantaloupe attached to an ovary.

"In a way, it's better that this whole thing happened to me [instead of someone else] because I know how to handle this type of situation," Bisera told me. "It's happened to me before."

She will play outfield next year at San Diego, thankfully. But the joy in her voice despite the setbacks, one after another, provided genuine hope and inspiration.

I hate fighting back tears during interviews.

Fortunately, there are opportunities when others' tears lead to resolve, determination and bittersweet success.

Toria and Tiare Auelua faced the role none of us wants after their father, Mark, the strong, apparently healthy, omnipresent booster of Pacifica's softball program, died of a heart attack a week before the season began. He was 39.

Players dedicated the season in his memory and wore his initials on their sleeves. Mark Auelua's hope was that his daughters could play on a championship team together at Pacifica. At season's end, they did.

After the title game, Tiare, a sophomore, could not speak without breaking down. Toria, a junior, was too strong not to.

"We knew our dad was watching and we just wanted to go out there and do it for him, to top it off," she said with no break in her voice. "My dad helped us get where we are now. We were able to get this far, my sister and I, and it's even better to go out there and prove it and show my dad we're still doing what he taught us, to make him proud."

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