Erica Eller walked out of Braun Park Sunday evening wearing her runner-up medal proudly.
But the smiling, 12-year-old Cloquet Middle School catcher was happiest simply playing softball.
Eller is just one of thousands of youth players who have participated in the Ashley Abrahamson Memorial Softball Tournament over time. Last weekend marked the annual event's 14th year in honor of Ashley, a talented three-sport, student-athlete who was killed in a car accident in Illinois in 2000.
"I didn't meet her, but I kind of look up to her," said Eller. "I heard she loved the game and that's the way I want to be. I love the sport, and the Ashley tournament stands out to me. It's for Ashley."
Last weekend's 26-team, dual division tournament at Cloquet's Braun Park was one of the largest in recent years, said tournament director Sarah Wondrasek.
Close friends, neighbors and
teammates before the accident, Sarah and her father, Ron Tondryk, created the tournament in Ashley's honor. Tondryk and his daughter directed things again last weekend, accepting rosters, posting scores and ultimately, watching girls play ball.
"Being able to do this for so many girls, I think it's really cool -- it's definitely worth it," Wondrasek said. "It's neat to think of how many girls have played here."
"We're probably pushing 4,000 kids," added Tondryk. "And it's always all about developing memories for themselves -- and to remember Ashley. She was one of those kids who went out there and truly loved the game."
Ashley's parents, Jim and Kathy Abrahamson, were again on hand throughout the tournament. Along with handing out medals to all of the finalist teams, the Abrahamsons also welcomed players by presenting them with a T-shirt.
"I have a lot of fond memories of growing up at their house with Ashley," said Wondrasek. "They are so supportive and some of the nicest people I've ever met."
Kathy said the same of Sarah and Ron.
"They make it better every year," Kathy said. "Sarah and Ron have always gone beyond to remember Ashley -- and it touches all of our hearts."
In addition to the commemorative T-shirts, opening ceremonies were held Saturday, and the Ashley Award was given out to one player from each team on Sunday. The award is presented to the players who best represent who Ashley was as a player and a person.
"It was cool to win it in my last year," said Lindsey Lamirande, the catcher of the Cloquet-based 14-and-Under Minnesota Blast, who also caught the ceremonial first pitch during the opening ceremonies. "Softball is pretty much all I do in the summer. I'll miss this [tournament]. I'm sad I won't be able to do it again."
The Twin Ports Rampage were again in the U14 finals and shut out the West Metro Thunder for the championship, while in U12, Superior surpassed Cloquet Outdoor Advantage for the title. Tondryk, also the Cloquet High School softball coach, said all four Cloquet teams finished well in the top tiers.
"All in all, it was a great experience for all of the teams," added Cloquet Outdoor Advantage Coach Merle Kelley. "Our girls talked about this all week. The West Metro Coach told me they loved it. It's one of the best."
"Yeah, there's State, too, but the Ashley [tournament] is so much fun," Eller said. "Coach Merle always says winning is a bonus. My favorite part is just getting to play softball."