Last season Jay Rusk's 14-U Phenix softball team was forced to overcome tragedy with the death of Krystal Bateson.
This year, it appears those lessons learned are paying off for the team.
Bateson died in her sleep while at an out-of-town tournament a year ago last Sunday. The team took the weekend off, planning to meet at her grave site for a memorial.
"It is important that we bring closure to last year but do things to continue to keep her in mind," Rusk said.
Phenix players throughout the organization remember Bateson by displaying her number, 2, on their jersey.
This year the adversity that the team has had to overcome has not been off the field but on the field.
Since the younger half of the players on the team were eighth-graders, they lacked the opportunity to play every day like the older half of the players on the team, who, as ninth-graders, played their first year of high school ball.
"It's an awkward year with what happened last year and half of the girls playing high school ball and the other not," Rusk said.
Two of the Phenix-Rusk pitchers pitched for their high schools' varsity teams. Katherine Smith pitched for Free State High and Callie Craig pitched for Baldwin High. Also, junior varsity players from Eudora High, Lawrence High and FSHS speckle the lineup. The team got together for some practices before the high school season, but delayed practices and tournaments until it was over.
"The girls all had different responsibilities for the first time. They were all going different ways," Rusk said. "It was hard for them to gel right away, but now they really are starting to gel."
With two tournaments under their belt, including a second-place finish in their debut tournament in Blue Springs during the Memorial Day weekend, the Phenix have already qualified for the American Fastpitch Assn.'s National Tournament July 18 in Lawrence.
Phenix-Rusk will play in tournaments most of the weekends leading up to the national tournament, including a weekend trip to Oklahoma City. The team hopes to qualify for the USSSA National Tournament in addition to the AFA National Tournament, Rusk said.
Rusk's team won't have to wait until nationals to play at home. This weekend Lawrence will host a national-qualifier tournament where Rusk and many of the other Phenix teams will compete, a likely benefit for the teams.
"The Phenix teams will feed off of one another," Rusk said. "Many of the girls have been teammates on other teams and having them around will help get everything going."
Playing close to home will not only be more convenient for the team, but will put many parents' minds at ease, Rusk said.
"Girls get to sleep in their own beds and have friends come around that usually don't get to come to the out-of town tournaments," he said.
Rusk said more parents want to travel with the team for the tournaments this year.
"It seems like the team has honed in on having at least one of the parents at the tournaments," he said.
Already qualifying for the AFA National Tournament relieves Phenix-Rusk of the pressure of playing in tournaments every weekend. The team opted to not play in a league and sandwiched off weekends between tournaments.
After the Lawrence tournament this weekend, Phenix-Rusk will play in a USSSA national-qualifier tournament at Adair Park the weekend of June 25 in Independence, Mo., followed by an American Softball Assn. tournament in Blue Valley the next weekend.
The team will take the Fourth of July holiday off before traveling July 8 to Oklahoma City, and one final weekend break right before the national tournament.
Rusk hopes that his team will continue to improve and get to the playing level it was at during last year's AFA National Tournament in Lawrence.
"We pulled together and played well together at the end of the season last year," Rusk said.
The team's success so far leaves him optimistic.
"We've already come around quite a bit," he said.#