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Mental Edge Softball Camp teaches kids how to succeed on and off the field

May 18—Amber Bretton is one of the state's best softball players, an excellent athlete with a strong arm, a big bat and a commitment to the University of Connecticut to prove it.

And even she has moments where it can feel like managing her mental health is an uphill battle.

"This year in particular," said Bretton, a Gorham High senior. "It's almost like I've lost who I am on the field. I think that definitely is because I haven't been focusing on my mental health."

It's why Bretton signed up without hesitating when she heard that Windham sophomore Oakley McLeod was putting together a softball clinic based around the concept of mental health, and she wasn't alone. Many of the top players and coaches in the SMAA were on hand Saturday at Payson Park as instructors for the first Mental Edge Softball Camp, a free clinic for players in grades 3-8, held to acknowledge May as Mental Health Awareness Month.

A total of 85 players were registered, and the event raised just under $2,000 for the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The clinic featured speeches from Southern Maine Community College softball coach Chris Caswell, Maine NAMI associate director of development and communications Jill Henderson, and Portland senior Sadie Armstrong on the subject of mental health. They talked about handling disappointment in a sport of failure, finding acceptance and support from teammates, and never hesitating to use the resources for help at hand.

The speeches were for the kids. But the advice applied to all ages.

"Coming this year was a huge thing for me," Bretton said. "I'm listening to the speakers and I'm really tuned in to what they're saying, because that's exactly what we need to hear. ... They might not realize how important it is, but when they get older, they're going to strive."

The clinic was the idea of McLeod, a second baseman on the Windham softball team who also plays for Rip City Softball, based out of Massachusetts. Rip City does weekly check-ins with its players on mental health, and McLeod wanted to bring the focus on the topic to her Maine circle.

"A lot of young girls have been struggling with school, stress and sports, and mental health is a big part of that. I wanted to make sure everyone was welcome, everyone (knows they) belong here," she said. "I love softball, and mental health is a big part of me because I struggle with it, and a lot of my other teammates have. I thought it was a great thing to do this."

McLeod went to work recruiting teammates, as well as players on other SMAA teams, to join as instructors, Her father, Portland Coach Jason McLeod, did the same in coaching circles. The result was a roster of instructors that featured some of the top players in the state, including Bretton, Addison DeRoche of Cheverus, Kennedy Kimball, Jaydn Kimball and Stella Jarvais of Windham, and Armstrong of Portland.

"I think it's important to come to things like these ... and teach these younger girls how to work," said Jarvais, a junior catcher. "I love teaching little kids, I love being able to make a difference."

Like the other players and coaches there, Jarvais saw the value in the cause.

"Mental health is really important to me, especially going through the years and playing three sports," she said. "It can take a toll on you, especially when you want yourself to do so well and you have this mindset of where you want to be, and then you just don't reach it. I think that's so hard on kids."

The camp's underlying theme was serious, but the tone of each session was laid-back and lighthearted. Jarvais and Kennebunk graduate Emily Hutchins, last year's SMAA Defensive Player of the Year, worked with players on catching techniques and blocking skills. DeRoche, Cheverus' sensational freshman, offered one-on-one pitching tips. Kennebunk Coach Eddie Pike showed players how to execute a rundown, University of Southern Maine Coach Sarah Jamo showed proper swing path, and Massabesic Coach Kevin Tutt and George Covino, McLeod's coach at Rip City, ran a batting cage.

"We've got it cranking at 90 miles per hour!" Tutt bellowed after one hard-hit line drive. "Well, not really. But coaches fib."

Tutt said the coaches were all looking forward to participating.

"It's huge. To give back to the community is great," he said, "and again, mental health affects everybody in one fashion or another. It's great to see the high school kids giving back, it's great to see the numerous varsity coaches that were here. We were contacted by Jason and Oakley, and instantaneously, it was an absolute 'We'll be there.'"

The lessons, on the field and off, were well-received by the kids in attendance.

"I've been really excited (to be here), it's been really fun," said Libby Rulman, 10, of Windham, who worked on pitching with Armstrong and McLeod. "(I wanted to) get more tips and tricks for the actual game."

A big aspect of mental health is handling the often unfortunate twists and turns that life takes. Perhaps no one in attendance knew that better than Rulman, who developed Langerhans cell histiocytosis, a type of cancer, on her orbital bone at age 2 and underwent chemotherapy for a year and a half. The cancer is now in remission, but Rulman still undergoes full body scans twice a year and a brain MRI once a year.

Even at a young age, she knows how important the mental side is — not just to softball, but to life.

"It all depends on how you feel. If you feel bad one day, you're not going to want to feel motivated to do stuff you want to," she said. "It's very important to me. Some people just deal with it, and others just push it away, when you're supposed to deal with it and then push it away."

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