While the Chicago Cubs might be one of the hottest tickets in town this season, there is another ball team that may be even more exciting — and definitely worthy of community support.
A River Forest All-Star softball team reunion will take place Saturday, September 26 at 3 pm at Keystone Park East. The now 40-something dream team, including United States Softball Gold Medal Olympian Dani Tyler, will square off against a River Forest girls’ 12U team in what is expected to be a day celebrating community, friendship, athleticism and River Forest Youth Softball/Baseball.
Tyler, who learned the game on the fields of River Forest and even has Centennial Park renamed in her honor, will throw out the first pitch at the reunion game and join her former teammates on the field once again. These teammates competed on Junior and Senior All-Star youth softball teams in the mid to late-80’s in River Forest and won dozens of Little League District, Sectional, State and Regional titles over the course of 6 years.
But this reunion match up is not an attempt to relive glory days. Instead, it is a fun and positive way to reach out to young girls in the community today and to show them how the friendships, memories and values they are building now through team sports are carried intangibly throughout life.
Lessons Learned from Youth Sports
“Youth sports taught me to challenge myself and to work hard and sacrifice for a ‘team,'” said Jessica Paganis, whose father Mike Klonoski was a long-time coach in River Forest and whose daughter Ava follows in her mother’s footsteps playing softball too and will face off against her mom at the reunion game. “I have found that these basic values have evolved through my lifetime. As I have grown, the values remain; my team has just changed from softball, to college girlfriends, to my work team, to my husband and children. Life brings challenges and choices and as my dad always said, ‘Sometimes you just have to take one for the team!'”
Ann Bath, who spearheaded the reunion game after an old team photo drummed up memories and laughs on Paganis’ Facebook post dedicated to her dad on Father’s Day, wants the younger girls to see their time on the field as priceless.
“They will never forget the people they played youth sports with as a kid and they will remember the stories for a lifetime. I mean, I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, but I remember those years vividly,” Bath said.
Bath, like many who benefited from team sports, said the ability to work as part of a team is one of the greatest life skills a person can have.
“It will serve these girls in their friendships, marriages, school, and work,” she said, adding, “I also want them to know how fortunate they are to live in a community like River Forest that has ample funding for youth sports programs; some communities aren’t as fortunate. I want them to know that their parents love to watch them play the game as much as they love to play the game. I want them to know that they are strong and that winning is awesome, but they will learn more about themselves from losing and that is where true character is built.”
Elly Koopersmith, whose father Joe Vitacco was also a long-time coach in town, echoed Bath’s comments.
“Softball, and youth sports in general, taught me that I was part of something bigger than myself,” she said. “I learned that one bad pitch, one bad play in the field, or one bad swing didn’t define me. I was part of a team. My teammates were there for me, as I was there for them. We won as a team and lost as a team.”
Tyler, who won the gold in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, wants the girls to know, “In the end, what people really remember most about you and your softball career is not your batting average or how many wins and losses you had, but how you treated them and others along the way.”
Of course getting the girls of summer back together one more time has also been pure fun and while these ladies might have grown a little older, they are still game for some good competition.
And the Winner Is…?
So who is expected to “win” the friendly match up?
“Well, the old ladies, of course!” joked Abigail Clary, one of the alumni team members. “Our competitive spirit has only strengthened with age.”
Tyler was a bit more cautious, however.
“That’s a tough question,” she said. “Those 12-year old girls are pretty darn good. Hopefully the girls will take it easy on us. The alumni hope to keep it a close game, and win or lose, it’s a win for our town and our community.”
The collective win is of course reconnecting with old friends and meeting their families, meeting the new generation of young girls and their families, and bringing both teams together in a measure of community and athletic spirit and pride.
The 12U team was put together by Derek Briggs, vice president of River Forest Youth Baseball/Softball, manager and coach. Team members include: Alyza Hernandez, Mia Reynes, Alexa Padula, Cate Szpila, Angelique Lorenzo, Baily Nickoloff, Juilia Youman, Abby Giordani, Jacky Neuman, Maddi Grant, Evelyn Reese, Parker Philips, Gabriella Ferrante, Sarah Phelan, Sadie Briggs, Catherine Traylor and Ava Paganis.
The managers and coaches for the All-Star Reunion Team include long-time, local coaches Ellis Kahn, Mike Klonoski, Joe Vitacco and Miles Brundage. There will be an opportunity to donate to the RFYBS program via donation jars and a passed hat at the event, but the bigger hope is community members will pack a picnic, walk over to the ballpark and enjoy a great game of softball on a Saturday afternoon. Tyler will be on hand to sign autographs, so bring a ball.
Like They Never Left… the 2015 All-Stars Reunion Team
Other credit goes out to the many parents of these athletes — both new and old — who have supported girls’ sports throughout the years. They attend practices and games both near and far; carpool, cheer, cry, have uniforms clean and ready, bring snacks and cold drinks, and so much more. A special shout out to Cheryl Klonoski, Jessica Klonoski Paganis’ mother, the self-titled archivist and truly the spirit manager for the All-Star Reunion Team.