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BY ZACH WILLIAMS | Many a boy and girl plays a backyard ballgame with a sibling, fantasizing about winning a championship if only fate would eventually permit. For two Downtown Little League softball teams though, that’s the reality for not one, but seven sibling sets.
The sisterhood of two state championship teams — one comprised of girls 11 and under (11u), and the other 14 and under (14u) — is just one of the stories behind the emergence of Downtown youth softball as a regional powerhouse. Since parents began strengthening the offerings of the girls-only sport three seasons ago, this league of their own has evened the playing field long tilted towards the boys, and the results are in.
“It was pretty crazy because we are from Manhattan and when you go to tournaments they underestimate you,” said Grace Kirwin, one of the state champs whose older sister, Brooke, plays on the 14u team.
For the first time, a 14u Downtown team represented the state at the Eastern Regional tournament, the last round before nationals. However, an early loss in the tournament put Downtown at a disadvantage. They staved off elimination with an offensive-driven 10-7 victory over Delaware on Aug. 3. However, the next day their bats got heavy as New Jersey chipped away at an early 2-0 deficit and emerged the victory in the 4-2 contest.
There is no higher tournament than the state level for 11u softball so the team’s season ended with the championship.
The two post-season runs represent progress from three years ago, according to Chris O’Mara, father to twins Ava and Morgan O’Mara on the 14u team. Back then, he and other local parents saw the version of softball available to their daughters as a bit underwhelming. Like many girls, they had played with the boys in baseball.
Then they saw the potential in instituting rule changes such as full windmill pitching for girls 12 and under rather than the gentle underhand loft then permitted in local youth softball and giving the girls something different. While at first the teams were not so competitive against city competition, things are different now.
“We try to champion our daughters and we tried to change the league here years ago to make it more competitive and challenging,” said O’Mara.
Finding enough players for teams was helped in part because a good number of interested families had at least two girls who liked softball, according to Scott Morrison, whose younger daughter, Jamie, pitched on the 11u team while older daughter Zoe played for 14u.
Some subliminal encouragement comes in the form of team names borrowed from N.C.A.A. sports. There are the Bull Dogs [Georgetown], the Gators [Univ. of Florida] and the Crimson Tide [Univ. of Alabama].
Enrollment in Downtown Little League girls softball has increased by four-fold, according to O’Mara, with plans underway to open a tee-ball league next season — “the last piece of the puzzle,” he added.
In many little leagues across the country, girls play with the boys until the early teen years when they must play softball, a game similar but different from traditional hardball. O’Mara added that years spent playing the wrong sport can ultimately be a disadvantage for girls competing for collegiate athletic opportunities.
“I like playing with just girls a lot better because you get a sense of leadership where we can take responsibility in the game, and we are not overpowered by gender because they think they’re better than us. So it just feels good to have equality,” said Morgan O’Mara of 14u.
The Downtown Little League season has finished but that does not mean that there is not more softball to play before the next season commences. Several of the 14u players now engage in more competition through the Manhattan Mayhem tournament club, which includes players up to 18 years old.
On the field it seemed to be all business as the girls conducted drills and shagged balls during an Aug. 12 practice at the Battery Park City ballfields. Then a dropped catch or a wildly errant throw reveals that quintessentially teenage combination of amusement and embarrassment.
As many champs say, the season’s success was unexpected, according to Jamie Morrison, a younger sister who played on 11u. The role of sibling rivalry and love in motivating their championship aspirations though could not be denied by Grace Kirwin, who had to wait a day to catch up to her older sister with a state title.
“My sister is proud of us anyways but sometimes it gets competitive,” she said.
On the eve of their state championship game versus upstate Pearl River, the score was not tied between Grace and Brooke.
Grace said, “We were talking and she said: ‘We are already state champions. You guys have your game tomorrow.’ ”
Jamie had a similar experience, but her older sister Zoe thought maybe little sisters are just used to a bit of ribbing.
“My sister and I are obviously closer because we can relate to each other but it also kind of creates a competitive drive because I want to be better than her,” Zoe said. “She wants to be better than me. When we won the state championship Jamie was like: ‘thanks for putting more pressure on us.’”