For the past five years, the Blue Springs High School softball team has made an annual trip to Joplin to play in the high school’s season-opening softball tournament.

For the past five years, the Blue Springs High School softball team has made an annual trip to Joplin to play in the high school’s season-opening softball tournament.

This year’s trip will be much different than the rest.

“I don’t really know what to expect from the girls this year when we go to Joplin,” said Blue Springs coach Roger Lower, who recently took six players and team parents to the tornado-ravaged community to meet with Joplin softball coach Bruce VonderHaar and three of his players who lost everything in the May 22 storm that turned the vibrant southwest Missouri community into something that still looks like a scene from a battlefield.

“It’s going to be emotional – especially for the girls who went with us when we went down there a few months ago. And I think that’s good. I think this trip is going to be about a lot more than softball. It’s going to make every girl on this team appreciate what they have.”

The tornado struck on a Sunday evening and leveled the high school gymnasium about an hour after senior graduation.

“When I saw their high school, and saw the devastation I couldn’t believe it,” Wildcats right fielder Madison Hood said as her eyes grew misty. “My high school means everything to me – it’s the biggest part of my life – and those girls don’t have a high school or homes.

“This tournament this weekend isn’t just about softball. It’s going down and getting reacquainted with those girls we met. They’ve become our friends. We have kept in touch with them, and we really love them. No one should have to go through what they went through the night of the tornado and are going through today.”

It doesn’t surprise me that a class act like Roger Lower was the first coach outside of Joplin to contact school activities director Jeff Starkweather and VonderHaar to see if there was anything he could do for members of the team.

“Roger is a good man, and we have enjoyed having his team here at our tournament the past few years,” Starkweather said. “And what they did for our girls was very special.”

VonderHaar agreed as he began the final preparations for the tournament that will be held at Missouri Southern State University.

“We have heard from so many people since the tornado hit, but Roger and his kids were the first to contact us,” the coach said with a touch of deep admiration in his voice.

“A coach from a school two and a half hours away was the first to call. He wanted to help a coach and a team whose world had been turned upside down. How special is that?

“I can’t even begin to tell you.”

Three members of the Joplin team – Danielle Campbell, Mariah Sanders and Leigh Ann Craig – lost everything.

“One of those girls,” Lower said softly, “was in a closet in her house, with a blanket over her head. She told our girls that it sounded like a train was running into her house and that she knew she was going to die.”

Lower collected his thoughts and continued.

“Here’s a kid, in a closet, with a blanket over her head and she thinks she’s going to die. How on earth can you not do anything possible to help someone like that? And I mean help her – not give money to the Red Cross to buy bottled water – but help that girl.
“And that’s what we did.”

Lower contacted the Blue Springs softball booster club and asked for $250 to buy clothing and other items for each girl.

“Our booster club is the best,” he said. “They didn’t give me $250, they gave me $500 for each girl.”

There are no girls in the Lower household, so Roger’s wife, Karen, had a big-time shopping trip for the trio of Joplin teens.

“She filled bag after bag with gifts for the Joplin players. We got them stuff they needed and stuff to make their life a little bit better – some fun stuff.”

The parents and the players on the Wildcats softball team also purchased items for the Joplin girls, and a few weeks after the tornado struck, they made a trip that would chance their lives forever.

“I knew the devastation was going to be bad, but I never imagined it could be as bad as it was,” third baseman Nikki White said. “They are going to school in an old Venture building. And it is cool, because they have done everything they can to make it look like a school.

“But when we visited their school, there was a wall still standing near the gym. There was a shelf with books and a poster area with notes and a class schedule. All that destruction, and there was that one wall – like nothing had happened.”
As White described the scene, Lower nodded in agreement.

“Just imagine this for a minute,” the coach said. “Imagine everything – and I mean everything – from I-70 to Colbern Road and from Woods Chapel to 7 Highway gone.

“Nothing! There is nothing there. You can stand in the middle of Joplin and do a 360 and not see anything but destruction. They lost 8,000 homes and 500 businesses, and those three girls lost everything but their lives. And we just wanted to do everything we could to let them know that someone was thinking about them outside of their hometown.”

White is a gamer, and she wants to come back to Blue Springs this weekend with a first-place trophy. But if that doesn’t happen, she knows it won’t be the end of the world.

“People talk about life-changing moments in their lives,” White said, “and we had one when we visited Joplin. I feel like we’re lucky to be living in our perfect world, while those girls don’t even have a home or a high school.

“This tournament is going to be different. This trip is going to be about a lot more than a tournament. I want to see those girls again and visit with them and give them a hug.”
And there will be hugs galore.

“Our girls can’t wait to see coach Lower and his team,” VonderHaar said. “They helped begin the healing process for those girls, and we will always be thankful for that. I don’t know if they will ever truly realize the impact they had on our girls.”

Sometimes tragedy serves as the foundation for a glimmering ray of light that leads people, whose lives have been torn apart, out of the darkness.

What Roger Lower and his team took to Joplin was that glimmering ray of light. And along with it, a little bit of hope and optimism that still resonates today.