Bella Secaira had played softball before.
But the moment she said she really became a softball player was when she first set foot in the place she simply calls "the warehouse."
Secaira saw the three batting cages at Softball Connection in Huntington Beach. She met Tony Rico, a hitting coach she referred to as her Mr. Miyagi from "The Karate Kid."
Rico hasn't taught Secaira how to "wax on, wax off," or how to catch flies with a chopstick since that meeting about five years ago. He helped teach her hitting and also did something far more valuable for Secaira, the Newport Harbor High sophomore catcher.
"He switched softball for me," Secaira said. "Instead of being a hobby, it's making it a career and actually going to college for it. That was the best time, because it really opened my eyes. If I keep working hard and I give it my all, I can go to college for it, or maybe be on the Junior Olympic team like some of my friends are."
The Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week earns the honor for helping lead the Sailors to the La Quinta Tournament championship. In the championship game, a 3-1 victory over host La Quinta on March 30, Secaira, the cleanup hitter, was two for two with a double and drove in all three runs.
There was more than the offensive performance, although Secaira is batting around .600 this season for Newport Harbor. There was the game she called behind the plate for Coach Tony Qualin, mixing up pitches and speeds effectively with her battery mate, sophomore pitcher Hattie Marshall.
Similarly, she wants there to be more to the Sailors' season than just preseason accolades. She wants Newport Harbor (13-6) to make a mark in the Sunset League.
Secaira, one of two captains with sophomore second baseman Lauren Gandi, was a captain last year as a freshman as well. She's not afraid to say what's on her mind.
What she says carries weight. Her full first name is Gabriella, but she goes by "Bella," which means "beautiful" in Spanish and Italian. She has the game to match.
Secaira, who plays for an 18-and-under team in the Firecrackers travel-ball club ran by Rico, was a first-team All-Sunset League selection last year. Also last year, she was named one of the top 10 freshmen in Orange County by Marina High assistant coach Jen Schroeder, the former Esperanza and UCLA star who has worked with Secaira at Softball Connection.
"I read it and I looked at my mom [Tiffany Etchegoyen]," Secaira said. "I was like, 'Mom, I'm getting there. I really am.' She was like, 'You have to keep working hard' and I was like, 'I know.'
"I'm not going to let off. I never want to settle for anything, because I know there's more in me. There's a drive in me that wants to be better than that."
The Sailors, who haven't won a Sunset League game in four years, lost to Schroeder's Vikings, 9-1, in their league opener Tuesday. The team captain wasn't happy, but it had little to do with the score.
"These girls have to understand, you have some burden on your shoulders," Secaira said. "Newport Harbor's not known for softball. They're definitely not known for softball, and there's schools out there that know that. But you know what? They don't know what's coming. Because [Tuesday] when we played Marina, I definitely thought we had a chance to beat them. I definitely did.
"But some of the players just don't get it and they assume, 'We're supposed to lose to Marina.' Even though you're supposed to lose to them, it doesn't mean that you can't win. Anybody can rise to the occasion and win. It's just about wanting it and having heart to win. That's what these girls are missing. Yeah, some of them have extremely strong arms and can hit the ball and everything. But it's, 'Do you want it?' There's seniors on Edison and seniors that go to Los Al that want it more than you, and you need to prove to yourself that you want it."
Secaira sounds more like a coach than anything. She said she's trying to get her teammates to understand the mental game of softball. She used freshman pitcher Savannah Caviston as an example. In one game, Caviston kept rolling over and hitting the ball to the right side. Before Caviston's next at-bat, Secaira told her she wanted to see a fly ball to left.
"She hits a line drive perfectly between the five-six hole and it goes into left field," Secaira said. "I looked at her and I was like, 'that's a true player.' That's what people don't understand. Yeah, physically you may be amazing and you can bench 400 pounds, but how's your mind doing in there? How are you thinking? I know Savannah gets it because I can see it in her eyes. I'm really good at reading people, and I know Savannah has it. I won't be surprised if by her senior year she's signed and making her difference for Newport Harbor."
Qualin appreciates the difference Secaira makes. He said heading into league play Secaira hadn't committed an error all year. Very few high school catchers call their own pitches, but he feels comfortable with Secaira behind the plate.
"When you have a catcher who can do that, it's very helpful," Qualin said. "She calls [the game] much better than I could. She remembers what the hitters do. She's smart, and she does a great job quarterbacking a game."
Secaira said she wants to make her mark in league by her senior year. She's already familiar with many of the players at schools like Edison and Marina, partially because she started the sport playing rec ball at South Huntington Beach Girls' Fastpitch Softball.
Edison's Casey Africano, Katie Shinrock and Maddy Hickman are also on Secaira's Firecrackers team. In high school, Secaira will continue working to try to help Newport Harbor get to that level.
"I really do care about these girls," Secaira said. "There's a huge improvement from last year to this year, and being captain again this year just makes me really excited. Now they know that I actually do know what I'm talking about. We have so many girls who know the game. It's just having these girls have the desire to be something, to change Newport Harbor softball history and make a difference.
"It's just that little spark of showing something. If we make it into CIF, this whole entire back [softball] fence will eventually be full of 20 banners. We'll have more publicity probably, and more girls wanting to come out and actually play. That one tiny difference between being decent and good, or good and great, is wanting it."
No one in the dugout doubts Secaira's desire for one second.
Born: Feb. 23, 1995
Hometown: Newport Beach
Height: 5 feet 6
Coach: Tony Qualin
Favorite food: Mexican food
Favorite movie: "61*"
Favorite athletic moment: Walking into the Softball Connection warehouse in Huntington Beach for the first time about five years ago.
Week in review: Secaira, a sophomore catcher, was two for two with three runs batted in as Newport Harbor defeated La Quinta, 4-1, to win the La Quinta Tournament title March 30.