The softball team at San Diego's Mater Dei High School has won a lot of championships, but their biggest success comes off the field with something called the "Honorary Player Program." The program has taught the girls important life lessons and brought much joy to their field.
A winning San Diego-based high school softball team is trying to get another step closer to its fifth straight CIF division title but for the players, the field is not where they’ve had the most achievements.
Now, if success were measured by winning titles alone, it could seem like the softball team at Mater Dei Catholic High School has it all figured out. CIF champion signs line the team’s outfield, reminding them of their accomplishments in softball.
But despite those signs, Coach Mike Centrullo said these teenagers still have a lot to learn.
To teach them, he brought in a first-grader as part of the team’s “Honorary Player Program.”
“What we do is look for a girl between seven and 10 who’s been going through something in her life,” he explained.
But before 7-year-old Kelly Lecker could suit up and sit in the dugout for every game, the coach first needed to convince her parents.
It didn’t take much convincing, Kelly’s dad, Scott Lecker, said.
“About two seconds. First one was to put my jaw back up into my face and say yes,” said Scott, with a smile.
You see, being a part of a team is not something Scott or Becky Lecker thought their daughter would ever experience because Kelly has cerebral palsy.
“So, sometimes she can hold her balance and other times she just flops straight over," Scott explained. "[We’re] just so proud of her. You know the doctors told her before she would never be able to walk, talk, or see. For her to be where she is today is just phenomenal."
The Mater Dei softball players are deeply inspired by Kelly, too.
“I mean, it’s unbelievable the things she’s been through,” said senior and centerfielder Lindsey Finch.
“She always has a smile on her face and it’s so easy to make her smile and laugh,” added outfielder Amanda Hernandez.
Kelly's parents they can see the difference her time on the team has made.
“She's very delayed in her responses but her emotions and her body language speak wonders," said her father.
Further proof the program is working is Carly, last year's honorary player, who still comes to almost every game.
Carly's older sister, Sydney Gastineau, is on the team and said it's made a difference at home for Carly as well.
"She always seemed happier when she knew there was a game," said Gastineau. "To see people that really care, and really want to help her, it's a big deal."
But this is about more than helping girls like Carly or Kelly.
For a private school used to winning, this is a dose of real life beyond what classrooms or coaches teach.
"They just made it a huge part of their life," said Coach Centrullo. “I think really they learn from it that they're lucky, and that those little things in life that they worry about aren't so important when they see what these kids are dealing with. I think as adults we learn too."
"It really keeps our minds in check to what more there is to life," said Finch.
So, while adding another one of those signs would be nice, at Mater Dei softball field, they don't measure success on signs or scoreboards.
"It really shows us how much more there is to life, really," added Finch.
Centrullo said he’d love to see other schools adopt the “Honorary Player Program” as well.
Mater Dei plays Thursday evening at 5:15 p.m. If the team wins, they’ll play for the fifth consecutive CIF title this weekend.