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Mater Dei's Miranda Tamayo: In dedication to a lost teammate

Tamayo has become the star Brianne Matthews was, ever since her softball teammate and best friend committed suicide. The Mater Dei softball team has pulled together after the tragedy.

April 26, 2010|By Melissa Rohlin

Each game before she makes her first pitch, Miranda Tamayo bends low and, using her finger, draws a heart with the number 10 in the middle.

That was the jersey number Brianne Matthews wore for the Mater Dei High softball team, and to Tamayo it has a double meaning.

She considers No. 10 to be her team's 10th player on the field.

"Every time I pitch," Tamayo said, "she's with me."

Matthews was 16 when, on Feb. 25, she was found dead at the Anaheim apartment she shared with her mother and younger sister. Authorities said she committed suicide by hanging, a shocking explanation for the demise of a girl who by all accounts was vivacious, popular, a straight-A student and one of the top high school softball players in the nation.

The morning after Matthews' body was discovered, school officials pulled Tamayo out of class to break the news to her.

"It was a complete shock," she said. "I didn't know what to do."

Matthews had been a close friend, even though Tamayo had every reason to be jealous.

As a freshman, Tamayo won 18 games for Mater Dei's highly regarded team, but she was relegated to the bench last season when Matthews arrived and went 14-4 as a ninth-grader. Nevertheless, Tamayo recalled, they "just clicked" and soon were eating lunch together and confiding in one another.

The rest of the team noticed. "We didn't know how she'd react toward Bri," former Mater Dei player Samantha Cardoza said of Tamayo, "but she cheered Bri on and was happy for her. Most people wouldn't be like that."

When Matthews died, Tamayo was immersed in grief over a span of several days, finding it difficult to concentrate in class or on the field. Her coach, Doug Myers, understood. He told her to take her time easing back into softball.

But Tamayo settled on a different plan.

The team — her and Brianne's team — needed her. So she would stand where her friend used to stand, and do what her friend used to do.

"She reinvented herself as a pitcher," Myers says. "Miranda was Bri's closest friend on the team, probably in life. With something like that, a lot of people can go in different directions. Miranda chose to honor Bri."

Mater Dei takes a record of 19-2 into its game Tuesday afternoon against Orange Lutheran. Tamayo's record is 11-1, and she has a 0.74 earned-run average with 92 strikeouts in 75.1 innings.

One of her victories — a complete-game, 12-strikeout performance — came last month against a Los Alamitos High team coached by Rob Weil, who was a Mater Dei assistant when Tamayo was a freshman.

"I knew she was pretty talented," Weil said, "but she threw phenomenally against us."

Tamayo has ramped up her impact in other areas as well.

"Miranda has always had more of a passive personality, now she's really stepped up and become a leader," said Luanne Freeman, who works closely with the Mater Dei program and is the mother of Monarchs catcher Amber Freeman.

Said Tamayo: "I'm just trying to be strong both for Bri and the team."

Observers say the team seems close and imbued with a sense of purpose since the tragedy.

"It was a bonding experience for them even though it wasn't how they wanted to bond," Los Alamitos shortstop Allison Brown said.

Matthews' mother, Nadia Martinez, said she was touched by the team's resiliency and resolve. "I'm glad to see them doing well in spite of all they've had to deal with," Martinez said.

Matthews' death has had profound reverberations all around the Mater Dei community — even to the school's championship girls' basketball team. Before the incident, many of the players said they were bickering over minutiae.

"When that happened they were terribly upset and grieving," Mater Dei basketball Coach Kevin Kiernan said. "They turned to each other, instead of turning on each other."

The basketball team placed Matthews' jersey on a chair during each game and, in her name, went on to win the Division II state title with a record of 32-1.

Now the softball team could be on its own championship run.

If it is, the credit will be shared.

Last month, in front of some 1,500 people attending Matthews' memorial service, Tamayo choked back tears as she talked about the girl who "put her all into everything."

"This season," Tamayo said of her best friend, "is for you."

melissa.rohlin@latimes.com

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