Famed college basketball coach Dave Odom once said that in the sports, “Don’t get so focused on the prize at the end of the rainbow and forget to enjoy the journey along the way.”
This is a great way to describe the mindset of the players, coaches and parents affiliated with this year’s Royal Palm Beach U12 All-Star girls softball team, which recently completed its stellar 2021 season. The team’s season started in April and finished in July. The season was filled with highs and lows, but the overall journey was a positive and permanent memory maker for everyone involved.
The highlight of the season was the squad’s triumph in the Babe Ruth League’s Florida Championship in late June, which qualified the team for the Babe Ruth League’s U12 World Series, which was held last month in Stuart. Unfortunately, the season came to an end without the World Series title. Yet the team’s 1-7 finish in Stuart didn’t detract from the season’s many positives.
“The season was amazing,” head coach Ed Bianco said. “Our team had great chemistry.”
Bianco had the help of two equally passionate assistant coaches in Carrie Severson and Jen Rudick.
For Bianco, his role as the head coach was somewhat unexpected.
“My daughter Ella was a national champion gymnast, but she was not having fun, so I suggested that she start playing softball,” Bianco recalled. “I have coached baseball for 10 years, but I have never coached girls softball until now. It was a wonderful experience.”
The team was formed from the players who participated in the Royal Palm Beach recreational league’s regular season.
After this 13-player squad was chosen in April, the team competed in a few warm-up tournaments in West Palm Beach and Pembroke Pines. The goal was to prepare for the Babe Ruth League Florida Championship in Lake City held June 21-28.
In Lake City, the team experienced immediate success against the 12-team field.
“We played five games, won all five games, and never left the winner’s bracket,” Bianco said.
In the state championship game on June 28, Royal Palm Beach defeated a team from Wrigley, Florida, by 10 runs, 12-2. That win propelled Royal Palm Beach to a berth in the Babe Ruth U12 World Series.
In Stuart, the team struggled against the 10-team field, but it was a beneficial learning experience. “We were a young team with three 10-year-olds,” Bianco said. “We had a number of very close games. It was great for our team to play against teams from other states. We played against teams from Kentucky, New Jersey and Louisiana.”
Every player from Royal Palm Beach contributed to the team’s overall success this summer.
The main pitcher on the team was Grace VanDyke, who played centerfield when she was not on the pitcher’s mound. “Grace was our ace, big-game pitcher,” Bianco said. “And she was a very consistent hitter.”
Another key pitcher was Caroline Duncan, who had a team-best .567 batting average. In addition to her skill in the circle, she brought enthusiasm to the squad. “If there’s one word to describe Caroline, it’s energetic,” Bianco said. “She is a chatter box who talked to everybody on field and in the dugout. She kept everybody alert.”
The two main catchers on the team were Izzy Luna and Jules Severson. Bianco’s one-word description for Luna was “fireball,” while Severson can best be described as “lightning.”
“Izzy was a utility player for us who could play any position on defense. She brought lots of energy to the team,” Bianco said. “Jules was quick and lightning fast. She is fast around the bases.”
Bianco’s daughter Ella was the team’s starting second baseman. “She was always diving on the field while playing defense,” Bianco said. “She was always moving and played heads-up softball.”
One of the more consistent hitters on the team was Lillian Severson. “Lillian was a slapper who always put the ball in play,” Bianco said. “On defense, she was a utility player, too.”
Aby Vital played in the outfield and was one of the team’s other pitchers. She took her role on the team very seriously. “Aby was all business,” Bianco said. “She hit the leather off the ball. She hit many line drives.”
Vital and Duncan were tied for the most hits on the team with 17. Vital also slugged a team-leading four doubles on the season.
The starting first baseman for the team was Gabi de los Reyes, a powerful hitter. “Gabi was our cleanup hitter who drove in many runs,” Bianco said. “She was one of our pitchers, too.”
This team’s third baseman was Ella Orta. According to Bianco, Orta was a very coachable player. “She was our most improved player from the beginning of the season to the end,” Bianco added.
One of the more talented players was shortstop Lexi Schifano. “Lexi can do everything,” Bianco said. “She has a cannon of an arm. She was a smart leader on the field for us.”
Outfielder Taylor King’s biggest contribution to the team was her ability to throw the ball long distances. “Taylor has a cannon of an arm,” Bianco said. “She is the only one who can throw the ball to home plate on the fly from the outfield.”
Fellow outfielder Victoria Wessman could hit for power. “Victoria was one of our sluggers who had no weakness as a player,” Bianco said.
Ava Martinez was the 13th player on the roster. She is a very talented shortstop and outfielder but was unable to play because of an injury. “Basically, Ava was our cheerleader on the bench,” Bianco said. “She’ll be healthy enough to play next year.”
As Bianco looks back at the season and the trip to the Babe Ruth U12 World Series, the biggest positive of the entire experience for the girls was the camaraderie with other players. “The sportsmanship at the World Series was tremendous,” he said.
It’s clear that Bianco and the team were never solely focused on the prize at the end of the rainbow and made sure they enjoyed their softball journey along the way.