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Irish sisters welcomed by local travel softball team

The players from the Jersey Shore Diamond Crush traveling softball team were gathered in a group prior to an early-summer practice when two girls they had never seen began to approach the field.

“We didn’t tell them we were going to have a couple new players, so they kind of had a look on their faces,” said Chelsea Bright, the head coach of the team, which is based in Cape May Court House. “Then we told them the two girls walking up were going to play with us for a little bit and that they were from Ireland. They freaked out. They were so pumped.”

Those two girls are twin sisters, Catriona and Rebecca Atkinson, who have been in the area on an extended summer vacation that included a trip this week to Clearwater, Fla., for the World Baseball Softball Confederation Junior Women’s Softball World Championship. The Atkinson sisters are playing for Team Ireland, which opens play at the tournament on Monday against China. The Irish will also compete against Canada, Great Britain, Mexico and South Korea.

Robert Atkinson, the twins’ father, was born and raised in Wildwood Crest. He attended Crest Memorial Elementary School and graduated from Wildwood High School in 1985 before moving to Ireland in 1991, where he met his wife, Redempta. Robert eventually earned the equivalent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Trinity College Dublin and is now a schoolteacher in the Irish capital city. Redempta is also a schoolteacher, at an Irish-speaking school in the Dublin area.

OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY

The twins and their parents are in the United States and staying in Wildwood Crest for much of the summer, due to an illness to Robert’s mother. With the girls scheduled to play for Team Ireland at the world championships, they needed a place to train.

Enter the Diamond Crush.

“Originally we only came here at the start of July for a couple of weeks (every other year), but our grandmother is ill so our dad got an extended holiday this year,” Rebecca said. “We would have missed out on training back home.”

Their father contacted the Wildwood Crest Recreation Department, which, in turn, put the family in contact with Diamond Crush assistant coach Lauren Reuf. The Diamond Crush were more than happy to oblige the twins’ request to join their program.

“When the coaches introduced them to us and told us they were from Ireland, we thought that was the coolest thing. That doesn’t happen every day,” said Diamond Crush outfielder Paige Fox, a rising junior at Middle Township High School. “They were real shy at first but then they started to warm up to us. We heard their family was from the Crest, so it was pretty crazy. It was so cool to have them, though.”

Softball is a very new sport in Ireland. The Atkinson sisters’ experience in the sport prior to joining the Diamond Crush for summer workouts came through a coed slow-pitch league in which they play on a team with their father.

Robert said there are no softball fields in Ireland. Games in their 30-team league are played on available soccer, rugby or hurling pitches. The league is filled with many American expatriates, Robert said.

“There was never any softball over (in Ireland) but I would play with them everywhere we could find a field,” Robert said. “At around age 3 they both had mitts and they could throw the ball around but it was only with me. Then I found out about the slow-pitch team and joined it and they joined the team as soon as they were old enough (age 14).”

The Atkinsons were recruited to play for the fledgling national team at the world championships, despite having no experience in the competitive fast-pitch game common for female leagues in the States.

Again, enter the Diamond Crush, which gave them their first real taste of the faster version of the sport they played back home.

“I was a little nervous the first time, especially judging off their throwing mechanics because they were much different than what our girls are taught,” Bright said. “But they definitely did catch up quickly.”

ATHLETIC BACKGROUND

The Atkinson sisters are well-rounded athletes. In addition to slow-pitch softball, the twins also have played Gaelic football, basketball, badminton, table tennis and soccer back at home. And they have loads of experience in the unique Irish game of camogie, or hurling, a team sport played by nearly every Irish child with an interest in sports. Played on a large field about the size of a soccer pitch, the objective of camogie is to hit a small ball between the opponents’ goalposts, either over the crossbar for one point or under the crossbar and into a guarded net for three points. The ball can be caught by hand but can only be carried for four steps. Then it must be struck by or bounced or balanced on the wooden stick each player carries. It is a fast, physical game that was once described, rather controversially, by Irish-born television golf analyst David Feherty as looking “a bit like a cross between lacrosse and second-degree manslaughter.”

“Playing camogie has definitely helped us in softball because the fitness is high and you get the strength for hitting,” Catriona said. “And you have the aspect of a team sport where you have to work with other people.”

They assimilated themselves rather well, Fox said.

“They were more comfortable in the outfield and I’m an outfielder so they were out there with us outfielders a lot,” Fox said. “They caught on so quickly. I was just shocked. One practice we had live pitching and they were just hitting bombs. I was shocked at how fast they caught onto our version of softball.

“They’re very athletic. You can just tell right away the way they’re built. When they hit they don’t use their legs as much as we do but they have so much upper body strength that the ball just sails.”

THANKFUL FOR CHANCE

The Atkinsons are two of just seven Irish players on the national team playing at the world championships next week. The other 10 are Americans who qualify for the Irish team through dual citizenship or a family connection to Ireland.

The twins were extremely thankful for their approximately five weeks of work with the Diamond Crush, which included weekly practices and scrimmage games. The Atkinsons also were able to play in one tournament with the team.

“A lot of the girls we train with are older and they wouldn’t be as fast or as athletic as these girls,” Catriona said. “They’re really good and it’s good to train with girls our own age.”

The Atkinsons also appreciated how they were immediately accepted into the team.

“It’s been amazing,” Rebecca said. “We were nervous going there at the start. But Americans always seem to really like Irish people and they were so friendly to us. The coaches always had spare time to help us. It’s really helping our confidence in the sport. We’re nervous about Florida but the coaches and the players at Diamond Crush have given us confidence.”

The Atkinsons even introduced camogie to their new American softball teammates, bringing sticks and a ball to a recent practice for a demonstration.

“The grip (on the stick) is different and they were a little confused by it all at first,” Rebecca said. “But they were very good at it for trying it for the first time. Even though they were playing with softball skills, they impressed us.”

SPLENDID SUMMER EXPERIENCE

The Atkinsons will spend another week or so at the Jersey Shore after the world championship tournament in Florida concludes before heading back to Ireland. They are set to begin the American equivalent of their junior year of high school in September at Colaiste Cois Life, which translates as College on the Liffey in English. It is an all-Irish-speaking school located near the River Liffey in Luncan, Co. Dublin.

In addition to English and Irish, the Atkinson sisters are also fluent in German. They also play musical instruments – Catriona the violin and Rebecca the cello.

But this summer for the Atkinsons has been all about softball and the new friends they’ve been able to meet through the sport.

“Coming over here and playing for the first time, we were able to become friends with other girls through a game,” Catriona said. “Before even talking to them, we had something in connection that we love and that’s softball.”

The experience for all involved proved that good things can happen when cultures collide.

“For our girls, at first all they wanted to do was hear them talk because they loved their accents,” Bright said with a laugh. “They kept asking them to repeat things just so they could hear them say it again because of how different it sounded to them.

“But this was a really cool opportunity for all of them. We had an indoor practice and the girls were able to try their game (of camogie) out. They brought a whole new atmosphere to our practices. And then our girls got the chance to teach them the game of softball so they could learn it better. It was pretty cool to have them around. I think everyone got a lot out of having them here.”

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