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La Mirada’s Eckart ends summer with memorable trip for the ages

August 22, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter/X

Rebecca Eckart began her senior year at La Mirada High last Thursday and if any of her teachers asked her what she did during the summer, there was no shortage of events to be told. One of the softball stars for the Matadores, who also plays for the Empire Fastpitch 18 Premier travel team, just completed one of the busiest summers any travel softball player can have.

Eckart went to Havana, Cuba at the beginning of the month to play for a USA International softball team in the third annual Copa Amistad. 

The invitation to play in the event was posted on social media months ago by Manny Travieso of the Firecrackers travel softball organization, who originally put this event together in 2017. Travieso was also the coach of the team that went to Cuba and the trip was made possible by the ELLA Sports Foundation, which Travieso is part of. In a press release last month, he was quoted as saying, ‘ELLA Sports Foundation helps Latina and girl athletes in many ways, including cultural exchanges where they get to meet and play against peers from other countries as they do in the International Challenge’.

“He posted about the opportunity to go to Cuba, and you had to write an essay and send in some game film,” said Eckart. “So, that’s when I was interested. Then I found out that my travel coach, Kim Ensey, who is also the coach at Chino Hills, was one of the coaches on the team, which made me more interested. So, I signed up.”

Eckart had to state in her essay why she should be selected and included why she thought this was important and why she wanted to come [to Cuba]. Eckart, who was contacted this past April and told she had made the team, added that she is inspired a lot by baseball players. As she was growing up, she played baseball from the age of three to 14 and listed Roberto Clemente as her favorite baseball player, not just because of his talents on the field, but also for his humanitarian efforts. 

“I saw this as an opportunity to follow from what he has done,” said Eckart. “And we have the ability not to just only play, but we were also giving our gear and giving other daily necessities such as feminine products and shampoo, conditioner, etc. So, I thought that was going to be a great opportunity. It’s kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity that you can’t pass up; to be able to experience other cultures and to be able to help them out in ways, especially because of the embargo.

“It was pretty surreal, honestly,” she continued of being selected. “I was not expecting to be chosen, especially by how many people applied. I was extremely excited.”

Eckart’s father, Jim, said the team was ultimately comprised of 11 girls from across the nation, ranging from college players to high school players with the oldest entering her junior year of college and the youngest now beginning her sophomore year of high school. He also added that he didn’t know his daughter was interested in Copa Amistad until after the selection of the players was made. 

“We had people from New Mexico and Georgia and Northern California,” he said. “There’s people from all over the country who were applying for this and then ultimately chosen to be put on this team. The ability to get on this team, obviously, was a pretty high standard to get in.”

The team practiced once in the San Fernando Valley, which happened to be the same day it flew to Cuba. The timing for the 11-member squad to be in Southern California wasn’t as bad as one would expect as all but one of the players were already here with their respective travel teams for the Premier Girls Fastpitch National Championships. Most of the team flew out on July 31st from Los Angeles International and went to Houston, then arrived in Cuba the next day, had a team dinner that night and played the first two of its six games on Aug. 2 against a mixture of the Cuba’s National and Junior National teams.  

“It was really cool to see…first of all, the things are the same,” said Rebecca Eckart. “Even though we are from so far away, we have a lot of the same mechanics, a lot of the same skills. It was also interesting to see the different pitching mechanics because certain rules that we have…I think the term is crow hop.”

Eckart and her teammates played two more games on Aug. 3, in which half of the USA team played half of the Cuban National team in one game and the other halves for the second game, The final two games were played on Aug. 5 with half of the USA team being coached by the Cuban coaches and vice versa. Of the six games, Eckart played half behind the plate and the other half at third base. 

“First off, my Spanish isn’t perfect,” joked Eckart. “I’m not fluent, so I can speak a little bit of Spanish. So, there was a little bit of overcoming that language barrier. Other than that, it was cool. It’s the same old softball no matter what.”

On Aug. 4, the team saw more of Havana and went to the beach and Eckart was impressed with the history of Havana. She said the buildings were a lot more colorful and the locals were ‘so nice and welcoming’ and would ask where the players were from. 

“It’s nice to see because there’s such supposedly bad blood between the U.S. and Cuba,” said Eckart. “But you actually realize that the Cubans don’t hate us. It also kind of contradicts what you’re learning in History class because in History class…they paint the communist country as so bad and it really has more to do with the politics than the actual Cuban locals because they obviously didn’t choose the life that they’re living. They didn’t choose to be under this specific government.”

The team also went to the home where Ernest Hemingway lived, which included a small field where he allowed people to play baseball. In fact, while the USA team was there, it saw a group of boys playing baseball on that field and were invited to play with them. Eckart, who is a catcher and infielder with the Matadores, had an at-bat against the boys and pitched to some of them.

“Again, being able to be ambassadors for America and just as they’re showing us their culture, we can show our culture,” said Eckart. 

There were no opening ceremonies once the team got to Havana, but Eckart said there was a closing ceremony upon completion of the last game. The players exchanged gift bags, took pictures and for some of the players, including Eckart, uniforms were exchanged. She also gave some of the Cuban players her visor and belt. 

Eckart’s busy summer began after La Mirada was upset by Pacifica High 6-5 in eight innings in the first round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 1 playoffs on May 4. She did not play in La Mirada’s Southern California Regional game on May 30, but among other friendlies and showcase tournaments during the summer, her Empire Premier team was in the Triple Crown Sports Zoom into June Showcase Tournament, played from June 10-11. Eckart was also a member of the 18-Under Team Mexico squad which participated in the Triple Crown Sports International Challenge in Boulder, CO from June 23-25. That team won its first four games before losing to Team Cuba 8-5 in the playoffs. Less than a month later was the PGF National Championship then the trip to Havana.

“After a long summer, you definitely start to feel [fatigued] in your body,” said Eckart. “I knew, basically after Cuba, my arm needed a break. That was pretty much the only thing. I’ve been playing this sport for so long and been doing these long weeks, long summers for so long that having just an extra week of playing softball was not really too much for me.”

“We just thought that this was an amazing opportunity to not only experience the competitive nature of playing against an international team, which Rebecca had done when she played baseball,” said Jim Eckart. “We had played against teams that came over from Japan [and] we had played against teams from Mexico. But this was her first opportunity of doing that in softball. Doing that at this level, we thought was an amazing opportunity. But then of course, being able to actually do it in Cuba…of all the countries to be able to go do it in Cuba I thought was an incredible opportunity.”

Eckart, who is committed to the University of Notre Dame, said she would love to do this again in the summer of 2024, claiming it was ‘an amazing experience and unforgettable’. She also added that she hopes other players have this opportunity so that the United States can continue to bridge gaps with other countries.