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Playing Through the Pain : Fallen Teammate Inspires Simi Valley in Its Quest for Softball Title


The small, circular black patches emblazoned in white with the letters "JC" and No. 7 serve as omnipresent reminders of friendship.

And powerful sources of strength.

On learning last December that their 16-year-old friend and teammate Julie Clark had died suddenly from a rare viral infection of the heart, members of the Simi Valley High softball team gathered informally at school to remember her and console one another. The emotional talk focused on what Clark meant to them both on and off the field, and what the Pioneers should do to honor her memory.

Everyone agreed. They knew what was needed.

"We all felt we should dedicate the season to Julie," junior pitcher Sara Griffin said. "It was really hard and everyone cried for a long time but we all kept saying the same thing, 'Let's do it for Julie.' "

And they have.

Right up until tonight's Southern Section Division I softball championship game against Los Alamitos.

Clark's memory sticks in the Pioneers' minds--in addition to their uniforms. Her initials and the uniform number she wore while a member of the junior varsity last season adorn the left-shoulder sleeves of the players' jerseys.

The Pioneers have rallied around the emotion of losing Clark, using it to help power them to a 25-1-1 record, the Marmonte League title, a No. 1 ranking in the division entering the playoffs and tonight's championship game. They believe Clark has been with them for every pitch, and for every out of every inning of every game.

"It's made a big difference in the softball season," Griffin said. "We were all really shook up and devastated the week it happened, and we still miss her a lot, but we never got down.

"That's not what Julie would have wanted. This is what Julie would have wanted."

Family and friends say Clark was an affable, effervescent teen-ager. Like many her age, Clark was reveling in the newfound freedom of a first driver's license.

"She was an outstanding person," Simi Valley Coach Suzanne Manlet said. "She was one of those people who is a friend to everybody."

Clark, an infielder, was eager to make a contribution on the varsity this season. And Manlet was happy to have her.

However, tragedy struck.

Clark died Dec. 18 from viral myocarditis, her father Roger said.

The rare viral infection attacks the middle muscular layer of the heart known as the myocardium, causing inflammation in the wall of the heart. Victims show symptoms of influenza.

"Everyone just thought she had the flu and then she was gone," Manlet said. "It was so emotional. It was just horrible."

Clark was buried Dec. 22, which would have been her 17th birthday. A memorial service also took place at Simi Valley High.

Family, friends and well-wishers packed the school library. The Pioneers presented Clark's parents with Julie's framed jersey and a plaque commemorating the dedication of the season to their daughter.

Julie was the third of Roger and Bernadette's five children. Roger said the team's actions have helped ease his family's burden.

"They've been wonderful support for us," he said. "I don't know if they realize how much they have helped us.

"God has surrounded us with good people. The envelope of love around us is more than we even could have hoped for."

Manlet is pleased.

"No one hesitated in doing what we've done," she said. "We all knew these were the right things to do because we wanted to do something special for her family."

While the specter of death is especially hard on adolescents, Manlet said, the Pioneers have held up well considering the circumstances. Despite the team's sparkling record, there have been rough spots along the path to the championship game. Remembering what they set out to accomplish--and the reasons why--propelled the Pioneers during the hard times.

"We've focused the hurt and turned it into a good factor," Manlet said. "We haven't just been dwelling on it. When times got rough, it has been a part of what's driven us."

Said Griffin: "It's made us want to play even more. It's given us extra incentive."

As it has the Clarks.

Several family members have attended almost every home game and many on the road.

"The support they've given us with everything they've been through has been amazing," Manlet said. "They're always at the games cheering us on."

Griffin said rooting in the stands is often led by the same person.

"Mr. Clark is the best little cheerleader," she said. "He's always getting things going out there."

The Clarks plan to attend tonight's title game.

"We're thrilled, just absolutely thrilled," Roger said. "The girls have worked so hard for a long time. If remembering Julie has helped them, then we're happy."

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