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Eckart, Zhang, two others to represent their countries in Triple Crown International Challenge

Recent La Mirada High graduate Rebecca Eckart, a University of Notre Dame committ, is returning to the Triple Crown International Challenge this weekend to represent Team Mexico.

June 26, 2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

Every summer, one of the largest and premier travel softball showcase tournaments is the Triple Crown Sports Colorado Fourth of July Sparkler and Fireworks Tournament held throughout the Denver area. But days before that event is the Triple Crown International Challenge, now in its fourth straight year, with all games played at the Christopher Fields Complex in Westminster CO.

Four area players will be representing their respective countries, including recent La Mirada High graduate Rebecca Eckart and up and coming Valley Christian High star Rachel Zhang. Eckart, along with recent Norwalk High graduate Jailynn Banda and Cerritos High’s Katherine Villegas are on the 18-Under Team Mexico while Zhang will be representing Team Chinese Taipei, entering the TCIC for the first time.

Last summer, the TCIC had 20 18-U teams and nine 16-U teams while this year’s event will feature 21 18-U teams and eight 16-U teams.

“I just wanted to represent my culture and where I came from,” said Zhang. “I’ve also seen there’s very little Asian athletes in softball. So, for all of us to come together and play together would be really cool.

Valley Christian High pitcher Rachel Zhang, shown in late March against Village Christian High, will be representing Team Chinese Taipei in this weekend’s Triple Crown International Challenge.

“I feel like the parents who usually come from China…there’s no such thing as softball in China,” she continued. “When my mom came here, she didn’t know what softball was. I [played] baseball for two years, so I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why [I wanted to do this].”

Zhang found out about the TCIC through social media, either Facebook or Instagram. She emailed the proper personnel, introduced herself and asked if she could join the team. Zhang, who plays for the (Rialto) Orange County Batbusters-Mora travel team, had to send videos of her pitching and hitting and just like that, she was accepted on team.

Among the criteria for wanting to represent a country in the TCIC is one of your parents or grandparents had to have been born in that country. Zhang’s mother and father immigrated from China in the early 2000s and attended the University of Maryland. Zhang has been to China several times and all her ancestors are from China.

“I think the International Challenge is going to be really fun,” said Zhang. “I can’t wait to see. I’ve already met a few of my teammates because we recognize each other [through travel softball].”

Zhang said she recently went to a camp for college and a catcher and shortstop approached her and asked if she was Rachel Zhang.

Zhang has been playing softball since she was 11 or 12 years old. She recalls her parents wanted Zhang and her brother to be in the sun more, so they put the two of them in baseball. While Zhang was playing the male-dominated sport, she would wonder why there weren’t too many girls playing the sport. She remembers a parent telling her that her daughter plays softball and that she should try it out.

Rebecca Eckart, (above), up and coming Valley Christian High star Rachel Zhang, recent Norwalk High graduate Jailynn Banda and Cerritos High’s Katherine Villegas are on the 18-Under Team Mexico while Zhang will be representing Team Chinese Taipei.

“I’m just trying to play the best competition that I can,” said Zhang. “Playing in 16-U, I just want to prove myself and I need to see people who are better than me in order to kind of imitate what they are doing so I can get better. That’s why I decided to play 18-U.”

Zhang shined in her freshman season at V.C., going 12-6 in the circle and striking out 103 batters in just over 107 innings as the Defenders won the CIF-Southern Section Division V championship. She played in 20 games, starting 16 of them as the Defenders went 19-7. Offensively, Zhang batted .343 with 24 hits, scored 14 runs and drove in 13 runs. In 70 at-bats, she struck out just six times.

“I thought it was going to happen,” said Zhang of winning a CIF championship. “When I was in eighth grade, I knew they were in Division 5 and thought it must be easy to win. But it wasn’t easy to win. But I did have that motivation to win a championship. I did not think we were going to win it this early [in my high school career]. I thought maybe when I was a sophomore we were going to win it. But I’m glad we surprised [some people].”

Since the end of her high school season, the Batbusters have gone 11-6-2 and Zhang has not slowed down a bit, batting .429 in 10 games played with nine hits. She has scored half a dozen times, has four RBI and has been walked five times.

“I just want to be able to play to the best of my ability [in Colorado],” said Zhang. “I know things might not go my way, especially with the change in environment. But I want to be able to give it my all and I want to meet new friends. I just want to meet new people and be able to showcase my skills.”

Like many travel players, Zhang said she would like to return to the TCIC next summer and possibly in future summers, adding that ‘it’s really cool actually having a platform to represent who we really are’.

Team Chinese Taipei will play Team Philippines and Team Dominican Republic in consecutive games on Friday morning, then play Team Canada on Saturday morning for its three pool play games before moving on to the playoff portion of the tournament.

One of those players making a return to the TCIC is Eckart, the HMG-Community News Player of the Year. Last summer, Team Mexico won all three games in pool play action by a combined score of 19-7, defeated Team USA in the playoffs before losing to Team Cuba, 8-5. Both of Eckart’s grandparents on her mother’s side are from Mexico.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Eckart. “I enjoyed making new friends and being able to know people who kind of had the same upbringing and background as me. Also, it was really fun to be able to play for my culture and heritage.

“Going into Colorado and having these big tournaments [which] can be make or break and really matter [for your travel team], it’s nice to just kind of play games for fun,” she continued. “It’s still good competition. Of course, you still want to win. But it’s nice to have a little less pressure on you, compared to the rest of the weekend. All that fun is the reason why I wanted to come back and do it again.”

Once last year’s TCIC had been completed, Eckart and some of the girls who were there knew they wanted to come back this summer and try to win it. Team Mexico finished in a tie for fifth place with Team Ireland, Team Israel and Team Japan. Early last October, Eckart sent a text message to the coach to let him know she was interested in coming back this summer and he put her on the roster.

One of Eckart’s favorite moments from last summer’s International Challenge was when music was played before the games and the players were dancing, soon to be joined by the umpires.

“It will be good to make more friends of people who live near me and to have friends who are close by considering that this team is made up of people from all over,” said Eckart.

Eckart, who will be taking her talents to the University of Notre Dame, led La Mirada in almost every category this past season. She batted .402 and had 33 hits, five doubles, five home runs and 20 RBI. She also struck out five times in 82 at-bats.

Eckart plays for the (Huntington Beach) Firecrackers Select-Rico/Brashear, which will compete in The Alliance Fastpitch Championship Series July 21-28 in Westfield and Kokomo, IN, roughly 90 minutes away from where she will be attending college.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun and it will probably go by quick,” said Eckart. “It’s going to be really fun to play against a lot of competitive teams and to play with really good teammates. I’m also going to be playing in an all-star game in Indiana.”

Team Mexico will open pool play action on Friday afternoon against Team Israel followed by a contest against Team Netherlands. On Saturday afternoon, Team Mexico will wrap up pool play against Team Germany.

In last year’s TCIC, 2023 Cerritos graduate Camille Lara (St. Mary’s College) played on Team Philippines, Gahr High recent graduate Natalia Hill (University of Nebraska) played on Team Spain, Gahr recent graduate Rio Mendez (University of Utah) played on Team Puerto Rico and recent Norwalk High graduate Kendall Nakano (Biola University) played on Team Japan.