Time in Joplin bonds Rock Bridge softball team

Thursday, September 8, 2011 | 9:05 p.m. CDT
Rock Bridge Softball player Samantha Bell laughs with teammates during practice on Thursday. The Bruins have become closer as a team since their road trip to Joplin, in which they saw the destruction of the May tornado and volunteered at the Salvation Army during off days at a tournament.

COLUMBIA — Kelsey Harrington’s eyes welled with tears as she tried to find the words for what she and her teammates had seen.

Describing the destruction they saw littered throughout Joplin was difficult.

"I’ll be honest, it was like reality hit me in the face," Harrington said. "We heard about it at school, all the destruction. But it was just devastating."

The Bruins faced that wreckage, as well as five softball teams, when they traveled to Joplin for a tournament at Missouri Southern State University at the end of August. While a 4-1 record in the tournament was a positive outcome, the experience as a whole held more lasting significance.

In between games on the tournament’s second day, coach Janel Twehous gave her team the option to do some community service at the Salvation Army location in Joplin. Every member of the team chose to volunteer.

That was no surprise to Twehous, though.

"That was pretty heartfelt from the girls," she said. "They didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into, but they all wanted to do it."

The team spent two hours sorting and unpacking aid packages that arrived from across the country. They separated the donated supplies and helped customers who filtered in and out of the Salvation Army.

Afterward, they drove around surveying the town’s remains.

"We drove around, and it was just …wow," Twehous said. "Sad. Humbling. It was heartfelt from the girls and from all of us."

It was one thing to be told about what had happened, freshman Taylor Dillard said. It was quite another to see for herself the extent of the damage.

“It was crazy. It was 22 miles wide of nothing,” Dillard said. “Houses were completely flattened, and it just makes you wonder if that could ever happen to me someday. It makes you do your part when that happens to someone else.”

The team’s trip culminated with a vigil held at Joplin High School, which suffered extensive damage from the tornado that barreled through the town on May 22.

In the midst of such devastation, softball took a back seat. The girls sat in the school, as a team, and prayed.

"We all started tearing up," Harrington said. "The prayer group was really moving. It was a high school … just like Rock Bridge."

Even though they came to play softball, Twehous saw the trip as an opportunity to give back and grow as a team and as a family.

"I just think it’s really important to give back, and I think it’s really important to ingrain that into the girls — to give back and help others," Twehous said. "I think it’s a huge asset to the girls that they did that, and they took it very seriously."

When asked how the experience could make the Bruins a better softball team, Twehous paused momentarily.

Then, she smiled.

"It brings us together," Twehous said. "That’s my only comment. It brings us together."

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