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Olmin Leyba (The Philippine Star) - July 20, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - On a baseball/softball diamond sitting on a mountain of thrash they play ball. There in the so-called “Field of Dreams” in Tondo’s infamous site they find hope, seeing a way out of the dumps.

The girls of the GK Smokey Mountain softball team are chasing their dreams and laying the foundation for a better life, a brighter future through the sport they’ve come to love.

Competitive-wise, they hit pay-dirt when they won the softball 13-16 years old division championship in the Little League Asia-Pacific and Middle East Tournament recently in Clark Field in Pampanga.

This gave them an entry pass to THE big stage – the Senior League Softball World Series slated Aug. 3-9 in Lower Sussex County, Delaware. Traditionally, it is a play ground for the affluent.

God-willing, the Smokey Mountain softbelles are flying to the US to compete against the best Senior Leaguers in America and other districts of Little League International.

“Sa una talagang medyo mahirap sila i-mold attitude-wise kasi iba’t ibang background, iba’t ibang klase ng pagpapalaki ng magulang (At first it really was difficult to mold them, because they had different backgrounds, different upbringing),” relates Manny Llave, a teacher at Antonio J. Villegas Vocational High School who coaches the team.

“Maraming factors na pumapasok. Andyan iyung kahirapan, iyung way ng pagpapalaki ng magulang, iyung impluwensya ng paligid dito sa Tondo. So talagang pinagtiyagaan ko sila, hindi lang sa pag-train sa softball, tinulungan ko rin silang magbago, maging maayos ang attitude sa isa’t isa (There are many factors – poverty, upbringing, influences here in Tondo. I just kept at it, not just training them in softball but also helping them change, have a new attitude),” he adds.


Hello, world

Last year, GK Smokey Mountain fell short of winning the Philippine Series, losing to eventual champion and World Series campaigner Sta. Cruz, Laguna. But this year, the Tondo softbelles came back with a vengeance and ruled the Philippine tourney. They then defeated Guam in a best-of-five affair, 3-1, to capture the AsPac plum and realize their dream stint in the world series.

“Super excited kasi matagal na naming pinangarap ito, sobrang dream namin na makapunta sa world series, makapunta sa ibang bansa. Parang in real life, parang ang hirap matupad ito kung sa sarili mo lang, kaya salamat sa sports (We’re super excited because this has been our dream – to go to the world series, to travel. We couldn’t make it on our own, so thanks to sports),” says pitcher/first base Lovely Joy Redaja.

“Wow, ang swerte ko kasi noong Grade 6 nayaya lang ako sumubok mag-softball tapos ngayon, makakapunta ako ng America. Talagang blessing ito (I’m so lucky, I just tried softball in Grade 6, now I’m going to America),” adds shortstop/second base Ella Lyn Martinez.

“Super saya na nagbunga ang pinaghirapan namin. May plano talaga ang Diyos sa amin kasi last year, hindi kami pinalad. Ngayon, ire-represent namin hindi lang ang bansa natin, pati na rin ang Asia-Pacific (Our hard work bore fruit. Last year we didn’t make it; now we’re not just representing the country but Asia-Pacific),” says Hyacinth Abanilla.

Little League Philippines officials and supporters of GK Smokey Mountain Little League charter are now trying to raise funds for the girls’ trip to the US as they will only get $10,000 in assistance from LL International.

The softbelles’ feat brings fruition to the baseball and softball program started by Coach Manny at Villegas HS in 1996 and the subsequent construction of the “Field of Dreams” in one of the peaks of Smokey Mountain through the efforts of NGOs Little League Philippines, JCI Manila and Gawad Kalinga and the city government of Manila in 2009.

Thelma Landicho, principal of Villegas High, says the goal is not just to play well, but to live well. “We want them to engage in worthwhile activities like sports where they can learn discipline and different values and to help them battle bad influences. We want them to strive to get out of poverty and reach for their dreams.”


Ticket to college

Coach Manny currently trains 70 boys and girls from all over the Smokey Mountain area. They teach the basics at the roof deck of Villegas’ school building, where makeshift batting and pitching facilities are set-up, and head over to the Field of Dreams for in-field training and games.

He motivates them with the prospect of college scholarships, explaining that they can go to college for free and at the same time learn discipline.

This appealed to a lot of his potential recruits.

Ella Lyn, the 14th in a family of 16 children who is determined to be the first college graduate among the brood, says she now sees a real chance to finish college – thanks to sports.

Ella Lyn, a 16-year-old daughter of Elsa, a canteen worker, and Walter, who is retired, is an incoming BPE freshman at the University of the Philippines.

Hyacinth, daughter of Loida, a housewife, and Romeo, Jr., a company driver, grabbed the scholarship opportunity. She got a scholarship from De La Salle, where she’s taking up Philosophy preparatory to further pursuing her dream of becoming a lawyer.

Hyacinth, who graduated top of her class at Villegas, is a Palaro MVP and Home Run Queen. She used to “run away” from home just to go to softball practice. Her mother wanted her to stop softball, but she persisted, never losing sight of the dream of college.

The “poor kid from Tondo” is now enjoying her classes at La Salle. She said she expected to have a hard time because “puro mayaman dun (they’re all rich),” but she found them “super bait (kind). The team manager, coach, OSD (Office of Sports Development), talagang tinutulungan nila ako (they all helped me),” Hyacinth shares.

Lovely Joy was lured out of badminton by the promise of free college.

“Maraming benefits sa paglalaro ko ng softball, may scholarship sa college, na nagagamit ko na ngayon, tapos may allowance din na nakakatulong sa finances ng family,” says the eldest of the three children of Eva, a housewife, and Ronito Jr., a porter in Divisoria.

Lovely Joy is attending the University of the East for her management course, taking a step further to her goal of becoming a teacher.

Asked what subject she wants to teach, she answers: “English and PE.”

Why English? “Noong elementary pa ako, natutuwa ako kapag may natutunan akong English word na malalim at parang nae-explore ko yung imagination ko sa English,” says Lovely Joy. She relates she loves to write poems and short stories (for personal consumption) and at one time wrote a poem about a forest for a group poetry-reading project.

Their teammates Mary Joy Abanes (UP), Ledely Damas (Polytechnic University of the Philippines), Mary Grace Manalon (UE) are also benefiting from their college scholarships.

The other members of the world series-bound squad – Jacklyn Bihag, Mary Dunn Castro, Gel Anne Llave, Danicah Sinio, Trishia Tiozon – are still in Grade 9.

Fourteen other products of the Smokey Mountain baseball and softball program are currently studying in various colleges like UP, PUP and Adamson.

Overall, at least 14 previous Smokey Mountain players have gotten their college degrees and have found work.

Coach Manny acknowledges that that is the most fulfilling part of it all, and going to the US for the world series is just a bonus.

“My number one objective is that they become scholars in college. I am so happy when they are accepted,” he says, adding that he personally. recommends them to universities.

The GK Smokey Mountain softbelles’ shining example pretty much showed that yes, there’s gold to be found in that flattened patch of garbage.

“That field really helps. The kids are excited about baseball at softball and they are active here. It also helps us win them away from the  bad influences around,” says the coach.

Team Smokey Mountain finds inspiration in a verse in Philippians, so much so that “PHIL 4:13” is printed on the girls’ training uniforms:

“I can do all through Christ who gives me strength.”

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