Reporting by Maya A. Jones and photography by Verónica G. Cárdenas
Callie Sánchez started playing softball when she was 10 years old, and she quickly fell in love with catching. There was no better feeling than picking off a runner who was trying to steal a base. Callie, now 11, plays for the Uvalde Explosion, a travel softball team launched to give young players an outlet to process their grief after losing close friends, teammates and teachers in last year’s mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.
Callie met one of her closest friends, Makenna Lee Elrod, playing softball. They learned the sport together, were inseparable at practice and spent hours both talking on the phone and texting. César, Callie’s father and the team’s head coach, says Makenna was always protective of his daughter. Whenever César gave Callie constructive criticism at practice, he remembers Makenna sticking up for her: “It’s OK. You’re my All-Star.”
Last May, Callie was home from school when she noticed Uvalde was basically on every TV channel. Her parents later broke the devastating news about the shooting and that Makenna was one of the victims.
“Whenever I said goodbye,” Callie says. “I didn’t know it was going to be the last time I talked to her.”
ESPN spent the past six months following the team in the hopes of understanding what it means to attempt to move forward from the tragedy. What follows are a series of moments with the team as they honor their loved ones at softball tournaments across Texas.
César, along with Juan Gómez, were planning for months to start their own travel team. They knew plenty of girls who wanted to play all year round and parents who were ready to pitch in. They decided the team would play two tournaments each month, with about six to 10 games each.
“I just hope the girls out here with us get better and better every year,” César says. “Our kids are going to need it for many, many years to come.”
Maddison “Maddie” Galván, who attended Robb Elementary, is the only player who still wears a bow with the names of the victims to every game. Maddie became quiet and reserved after the shooting, but softball has helped her regain her confidence and outgoing personality.
“She’s very loving and just brings everybody together,” says Jessica Galván, Maddie’s mother. “She’s a leader. [Maddie and her friends] are just a group of survivors. They overcome things. And her other friends have been through their own traumas. So, they’ve just found each other and they help each other grow.”
Callie uses every softball game to improve both her skills and her mental toughness. Whenever she’s hard on herself, she quickly shakes off those thoughts and reminds herself to keep pushing — she’ll be fine.
She’s also studies her opponents so she can improve, whether she’s batting or catching. If she’s missing balls behind home plate or striking out, she’s thinking: “It’s OK. In the next inning, you’ll get better.”
June Ybarra, an umpire, created an ofrenda for the Day of the Dead at a mortuary in Uvalde. The display took June nearly a week to complete, showcasing photos of Uvalde students, residents and his relatives.
“I created it to remember the loved ones we serve during that year and keep their memories alive. Pay tribute to their lives,” June says. “Most of these people were friends and family. It’s important to honor them and remember them on that day.”
Jessica, Maddie’s mother, passes around glitter gel to players before each game — the routine has become a tradition for the girls. They bond over these moments and it brings them closer together.
“It’s like sisters playing softball all together,” Callie says. “We care for each other. No one’s going to be mean to each other. We just have a really close relationship, especially [with] all the new girls, too. We have some new girls in the league and we just treated them like they’ve been on this team forever.”
When César isn’t coaching or working his day job at a local trucking company, he DJs at events across the city. César began deejaying on the side for extra income when his wife, Amanda, was pregnant, but now it’s just one of the ways he minimizes stress.
“I’m blessed to have it. It’s freeing. You’re free. Music is key for me,” César says. “I’ve been around music all my life. For me, it’s another outlet. It brings a whole different level of comfort.”
Four of the victims — Eliahna Cruz Torres, Makenna Elrod, Tess Marie Mata and Alexandria Aniyah “Lexi” Rubio — played softball for Uvalde’s Little League teams. The city is home to a tight-knit community and many of the players and coaches were close to victims.
César says Eliahna was a talented player who he planned to recruit to play for the Explosion.
“I [get] these travel teams together because I’m big on the power of sports,” César says. “I’m big on getting the kids active, getting them engaged. I just hope it provides an outlet for them.”
Steve Mena, a local barber and coach, works so close to Robb Elementary that he heard the shots on the day of the shooting. He rushed to the school when he realized what was unfolding and waited until his daughter, Sierra, exited Robb Elementary.
It took another 40 agonizing minutes to learn his son Stevie was OK and already sent home.
Mena believes the community will never truly move past the traumatic events they’ve experienced but stresses it’s important to have an outlet. “I think it was the best idea,” Steve says, “Nobody likes to talk about it, but a lot of our girls, they were struggling at home with the smallest things.”
The membership fee to join the Explosion is $50. This helps cover tournaments, umpires, team dinners, equipment and jerseys. The parent-led organization has teams for girls ages 10 to 14.
“We contribute our own money and contribute time,” says Jesse Galván, Maddie’s father. “We call the games and stuff. They’re all our friends down there at the end of the day and it’s just fun. It makes for a big family atmosphere.”
At the beginning of the season, Sierra Mena didn’t want to play softball. She thought she was rusty after taking a few months off when sports were paused in Uvalde. Now, it’s the one thing she looks forward to the most.
Her father Steve says she didn’t realize how good she is: “Now she’s asking, ‘Hey, when’s practice? Do we have practice today? Can we hit?'”
Dozens of parents asked César to start the travel softball season to give the girls a much-needed distraction. When the girls started playing, it was clearly the right decision. They banded together, and when one player was feeling down, the others were there to comfort them.
“You don’t want to dwell on being upset because that’s not good. It’s not healthy,” Steve says. “That’s how we dealt with [the shooting.] Everybody deals with it differently.”
Gabriela Jiménez created a makeshift memorial dedicated to her friends who died. She often talks to family about the tragedy, but her mother says she cried for the first time during a post-game conversation in December.
“We would never think this would happen, but it happened,” Callie says. “There’s not that many bad people in this community. We all care for one another. We just want everyone to know that we’re here for them too. We just want to bring them together and make the community closer.”
One year after the shooting, the city’s mayor, Don McLaughlin, believes the city is slowly moving in a positive direction.
“The town’s doing good,” McLaughlin says. “I mean, this is something that we’re never going to forget. It’s a part of us but we’re not going to let it define us. We’ll never forget those young children and those teachers, but Uvalde will rise up and show the positives of the community that we lost and we’ll rally around those families and we’ll rally around each other.”
At first, Callie was nervous to play for her father, but she now appreciates it and says he makes her a better player. Callie appreciates both sides of her dad; a competitive coach on the field and a jokester at home.
“I’m enjoying every moment,” César says. “On the field, it’s a totally different relationship. I’m a competitive dad. I get to know my daughter in a different way and teach her how to deal with pressure. I’m getting to know her in the sports world. She’s feisty and I’m a pusher. Life’s full of pressure. We’re teaching life lessons.”