Newport Harbor was the best softball team in the Newport-Mesa area this year. With her impressive statistics and leadership, my conclusion was that the Sailors' sophomore catcher, Bella Secaira, was the best player.
I called her cell phone a few weeks back to set up a Dream Team Player of the Year interview, not thinking too much of it when she didn't call back that same night. When I got into work the next day, I had a voicemail from Bella. She apologized for not calling back sooner, saying she'd been busy with schoolwork and things going on in her personal life and, oh yeah, she'd been in a little accident.
I called her back and she answered. Only after a few moments did I find out she was in a hospital bed, recovering from a 30-foot fall from an apartment building June 3. She said she was just being a kid and fooling around, but she had suffered a collapsed lung and a mild concussion in the fall.
Bella still seemed to be in good spirits. With her vivacious personality, that didn't surprise me. Six days after the accident, she left the hospital for her home not too far from the softball field at Newport Harbor. She's been recovering, doing physical therapy and doing much better. She was using a walker, but now she can walk on her own, including up the stairs. She still wears her neck brace as a precaution but she still smiles plenty, which is always a good sign.
"I've had multiple people say that I'm very lucky to be here, because the fall was very crazy," Bella said. "The one thing I don't want is people feeling sorry for me. Everything happens for a reason. I'm really excited to work out and do rehab and everything. I know that I am going to be stronger than I ever was, mentally and physically."
It's a perspective that plenty of adults wouldn't have, a mature way of looking at things. That didn't surprise me either. Bella has always struck me as mature for a 16-year-old.
When she was our Athlete of the Week a couple of months back, she certainly had plenty of things to say about the state of Newport Harbor softball. These interviews usually last 15 or 20 minutes, but we talked for nearly an hour about some of her frustrations and, ultimately, her positive outlook on the team.
The Sailors have lost 42 straight games in the tough Sunset League, their last win coming in 2007. Talk to Bella for long enough, and you begin to believe the team captain could almost will the team to an upset win against an Edison or a Los Alamitos.
The thing is, she can't. She knows it will take the Sailors playing in unison, as a real team, for that to happen. But she takes her role as a team captain extremely seriously. Bella would fit in fine on the Chargers or Griffins, but instead she's on the Sailors, and she's itching for some positive improvement.
"We can be [better] if we not only believe in ourselves but everyone on the team," Bella said. "[You have to] have confidence that when a fly ball is hit to left field, that she's going to catch it. Not only is she telling herself she's going to catch it, but Hattie [Marshall] is pitching and doesn't even have to look, knowing that's going to be caught. That's what we were missing, but I saw a little bit at the end that we were all coming together. We were working more as a team."
Now she has a team of friends and family helping her recover. Bella, who plays travel-ball for the Firecrackers, has a lot of support. During the Women's College World Series in early June, Firecrackers alumni like Jessica Shults and Allee Allen (Oklahoma), as well as Elia and Jamia Reid (Cal), wear armbands or paint Bella's initials on their face in support.
More recently, Bella watched on CBS College Sports Thursday night as the Firecrackers were participating in a tournament in Colorado. Her teammates wore wristbands that said "Strength, love and honor" along with Bella's travel-ball No. 18, as well as ribbons in their hair supporting Bella. They were interviewed during the game by a reporter and explained their support for Bella, said her mother, Tiffany Etchegoyen.
It may not be too long until Bella's back on the diamond. Doctors told Etchegoyen that as long as Bella puts in the work she could be back on a softball field in a matter of months.
"She's getting up on her own and walking, doing things on her own," Etchegoyen said. "We want to make sure on top of that, she does a little extra. The worst thing you can do with a teenager is let them lay around, because they get lazy."
Etchegoyen knows motivation won't be an issue with her daughter. It never has been, in any phase of her life.
When Bella was in the hospital she got a visit from her friend, Cheyanne Tarango of Canyon High. It was a day after the Tennessee-bound pitcher had suffered a brutal loss in the CIF Southern Section Division I championship game. Tarango gave up a walk-off grand slam as Santiago of Corona defeated Canyon, 4-1.
"[Bella] said, 'How you doing? OK?,'" Etchegoyen recalled. "Cheyanne was like, 'Yeah, yeah…'
"And then Bella said, 'Hey, doesn't matter. Make up for it this summer.' For her to even say that to Cheyanne and not be worried about herself, it was like, OK, that's Bella. That's her. I think I knew at that moment she was going to be fine."
Bella knows it, too.
"I'm not going to let it affect me, because I can't change the past," she said. "I can only build from the present. I'm just excited for this summer and my recovery, to really jump on it and push myself to limits that I've never known I have. I can't dwell on it. It's only going to make me stronger, and I have people around me that aren't going to let me give up. I'm not going to let myself give up. You know how much I love softball, so I want to get back out there as soon as I can."
The strength may have temporarily left Bella's body. The confidence and leadership never did.
And, in turn, I'm even more confident that she's the perfect player to lead this year's Dream Team.