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Joy, Friendship and Web Gems: Sis Bates, Aliyah Andrews Are Ambassadors for LLWS Visit

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For the first time in the organization’s four-year history, Athletes Unlimited is playing a road game. In a rare midweek start to Week 3, all four teams will trade the championship season’s permanent home in Rosemont, Illinois, for Greenville, North Carolina, home of the Little League Softball World Series. Shortly after the younger generation wraps up Wednesday’s schedule at Stallings Stadium, the pros will take the field about a mile away at ECU Softball Stadium. 

The doubleheader is the equivalent of a softball state visit. And in Sis Bates and Aliyah Andrews, the delegation bound for North Carolina has two of the best ambassadors around.  

Both play with an evident joy not at all diminished by the pressures and responsibilities of their stations. Bates, in particular, famously plays with a degree of perpetual energy that even Little Leaguers might find exhausting. Friends by dint of softball, they exemplify the sport’s ability to bring people together as strangers and send them into the world as lifelong friends.

They play the game at the highest level for all the reasons it’s worth playing at any level. 

“I wanted to build relationships with these people that I have been admiring since I was a little girl,” Bates said of why she joined Athletes Unlimited after her college career at Washington. “I wanted to have fun. I’m 24 [now 25], and if the game’s not fun for me anymore, there’s no use in playing it. I just wanted to keep growing in my love and joy for the game with people that I love.”

And yet like any good ambassador, they take a message to Greenville that goes deeper than merely spreading good vibes. They may exude childlike joy for the game, but they play defense with skills honed with years of hard work and unerring attention to detail. The next generation would do well to remember to have as much fun doing anything as Bates has playing softball. But they would also do well to study just how much work the likes of Bates and Andrews put in to their fun. 

Athletes Unlimited struggles to adequately reward defense in a scoring system designed to produce individual champions (and which compensates everyone based on individual finish). That’s not a scathing indictment. Softball’s traditional model also struggles to measure individual defensive influence. And AU has tried to adjust with a series of defensive awards. But it’s still a shame there isn’t a better way to attach points to run-saving plays—because the league has some of the best defenders playing anywhere in the world. 

None better than the shortstop and centerfielder who bonded as rookies in 2021. 

For Bates, in the middle infield, defense starts well before the ball is hit. All the talking, pacing and general fidgeting going on out there? That’s not just nervous energy. It’s all part of the sort of pre-task checklist more commonly associated with surgeons and pilots. 

“You’re talking to your pitcher,” Bates explained. “You’re talking to your second baseman and third baseman about where you’re going to go with the ball. You’re turning and looking at the outfielders to see where they are and how much ground you have to cover. Then, usually you’ll see the sign, and that will help you in where you want to position yourself—because you can start to cheat to one side. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it super doesn’t work.”

In college softball, the increasing availability of data—spray charts, advanced stats, video, etc.—leads to more and more teams getting extremely precise with things like defensive positioning and even shifts. With no full-time coaches beyond each team’s facilitator, let alone a scouting department, analytics aren’t nearly as much a part of the AU way of life. But an elite defender still has tools at her disposal even if she doesn’t have a computer. Beyond reading the signs for a clue, Bates at least mentally starts to get in position to make a play as soon as the batter steps into the box. And as much as we talk about the battles between pitchers and hitters, Haylie McCleney matched against Megan Faraimo, there are also battles of will unfolding between batters and defenders. 

“Someone like Haylie has incredible barrel control, and she can literally hit every single pitch,” Bates said. “So, she’s tough to play because she can look at you and beat you—same with Megan Wiggins, she can see where you’re at and try to hit it where you’re not. With people like that, you have to play pretty straight up.”

One of the drills Bates endured over and over again under Heather Tarr at Washington involved having to call out what kind of spin a coach’s fungo grounder had as soon as it left the bat. That’s the level of detail necessary to make highlight reel plays. Just like a great batter might pick up the spin on a pitch a few milliseconds quicker than anyone else, 

“When the ball is put in play, the two main things I’m looking at are the speed and direction,” Bates said. “If something is hit hard, I’m going to get to the side of it so I can make my best read. If I have to go back, that’s OK—because when I get to the side of it, I can really read the spin and direction. Then, if it’s not hit very hard, I can charge and make a play. Because the field is so small, there’s not much room for error, so sometimes you err on the side of aggression.”

What happens next makes the highlights, but everything that happened before made it possible.

The one thing Bates can’t do with the glove? Play the outfield. 

“The outfield totally terrifies me,” Bates joked. “I think that if I really tried, I could probably, maybe be OK. But it’s so scary for me because there’s nobody behind you. At shortstop, if I go hard for a ball and it gets behind me, it’s OK—Aliayh is behind me.”

Part of the league’s promotional campaign for the Little League World Series games includes a clip of one of Andrews’ signature catches from a season ago. Sprinting toward the infield at full steam, she appears to not just leap for the ball—but propel herself forward again while already in the middle of her first leap. 

Again, the highlight began long before any of the cameras pick up the clip. 

On some level, Andrews allowed, the thought process on any such play is no more complicated than “go catch it.” But it isn’t quite that simple. Rosemont’s outfield is big. The league is replete with powerful hitters. That’s a tricky combination for outfielders, almost necessitating they start deep to protect against balls getting into the gaps. Knowing Aleshia Ocasio was on a tear at that moment, Andrews couldn’t risk playing shallow. That’s why she had so much ground to cover. 

“Once she hit it, I saw it was going to be short,” Andrews said. “Right off the bat, I got a good read. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how quick a ball like that is going to die—when they’re in the air but kind of short. Sometimes they hang there, sometimes they’re in no man’s land. That’s how it feels.”

There isn’t much Andrews can’t reach, but even she wasn’t sure about this one. 

“I’ll be completely honest, it felt extremely far for me,” she laughed.

Photo courtesy: Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited

Andrews’ older sister, A.J., was the first woman to win the Rawlings Gold Glove, but Aliyah has what amounts to a digital trophy case of viral web gems that attest to her status at the moment. A shortstop in her own right when she started playing the game, she started to focus on outfield in high school and honed those skills at LSU. All those hours and all those repetitions powered the mental calculator, or perhaps protractor, that allowed the sprinting Andrews to calculate what she needed to do in that moment. 

“If I’m going to catch this ball, I’m going to have to gain as much air and length as possible,” Andrews recalled of her inner monologue. “So I told myself to bound out. If I didn’t bound out like I did, I definitely would have ended up short.”

Years of work and preparation, seconds of viral fame. 

Softball is what you make of it. It can bring joy and inspire. It can forge friendships that last a lifetime. It can bring together people who share little more than how they feel about the game.  

“I think we’re very similar in some ways, and then we’re also opposite in a lot of ways,” Andrews said. “I think that’s super cool. She is the most optimistic, positive person on the planet. I try to be positive, but I’m definitely not like her. She reminds me to see the good in things and live life with an open heart and with grace for other people and situations. She’s such a great friend.”

This is worth remembering as Athletes Unlimited heads to the Little League World Series.

As is the lesson that what you make of it depends on how much you’re willing to commit to it. Much to the dismay of hitters, two friends prove that every time a ball is hit their way.