What began in 1967 as an after-school program, the Mermaids Girls Softball League is now celebrating its 50th year as the only slow-pitch league of its kind in Southern California for girls ages 4 to 17.
“There are no actual slow-pitch leagues or offerings at the high school, college or professional level — that’s what makes us unique,” said Lilly Guerra of Oxnard, a parent volunteer with the league whose husband, Joe, is president of the executive board.
“Not every girl wants to play competitive fast-pitch softball,” Joe Guerra said. “Many of our girls just want to do something, be a part of something, and we offer them this alternative.”
Lilly joined the Mermaids in 1977 at 8 years old, and played the sport until age 15.
“I liked being part of a team, feeling competitive and doing my best to win,” recalled Lilly, who is now 47 years old.
“Also, it was a great bonding experience for my dad and I,” she said. “He never coached, but he was at every practice and every game.”
Lilly became a “Mermaid mom” when their daughter, Synthia, started playing at age 7.
“My parents got me started in the league because my mom played when she was young,” said Synthia, 27, of Port Hueneme.
“I’ve grown to appreciate the friendships I made while I played as they have followed me into my life as an adult,” she said. “Mermaids softball is still a relevant part of my life.”
Above all, the league provides a fun and communal atmosphere where girls who want to play can play.
“It’s not a super-competitive, super-charged league,” Lilly emphasized.
Rather, “The girls learn the basics, how to play the game, how to be part of a team,” she said. “And then, if they want to move on to fast-pitch or high-school ball, they can. We teach fundamentals and more importantly, we promote confidence and inclusion.”
With nearly 300 female players, the league’s objective has remained the same over the years: to instill the ideals of good sportsmanship, teamwork, honesty and empowerment within the girls of this community.
“Though we strive for friendly competition, we focus on positive attitude and the desire to learn,” said Joe. “Most importantly, Mermaids softball offers an extended family, a sense of belonging and a place to build lifelong friendships.”
On March 11, all Mermaids alumni and families are invited to a 50th anniversary celebration and reunion starting at 9 a.m. at Carty Park in Oxnard. Event highlights include alumni presentations and awards, as well as food and games.
“Hopefully we can get enough alumni out for a softball game,” said Lilly. “We are going to have an alumni ceremony, gifts and a raffle. There are Mermaids all over the country, so we’ll see who can come out. It should be an awesome day.”
The effort began in 1967 as an after-school program at E. O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard. The program eventually grew into a league and started playing at Moranda Park in Port Hueneme.
“After a few years, the city of Hueneme wanted to charge too much to use the ball fields,” Lilly recalled. “So the league moved to Carty Park and E.O. Green in Oxnard and has been there ever since.”
Approximately 270 players are currently involved. They are primarily from Oxnard, with other players from throughout Ventura County.
“Because we are the only league of this kind, there are no residency boundaries,” Joe said.
“If I had to say the one thing that contributes to the longevity of Mermaids softball — it’s our girls,” he said. “We have the greatest, most resilient, hard-working, fun-loving girls playing ball.”
Lilly credits the league’s longevity to a collaboration of trustworthy volunteers, the city of Oxnard and the Hueneme School District.
Additionally, “In order for this league or any league to thrive, you have to look at the hundreds of good, decent parents and guardians and families who donate their time and efforts … to make sure each season is the best possible experience for their girls,” she said.
Life lessons learned by alumni
For Jeanie Moore, the Mermaids were like a second family when she played on the league from age 7 to 18.
Now 45 years old, Moore works for the Department of Defense.
“I continued playing adult leagues until I was 40,” said Moore of Ridgecrest. “The life lessons I learned were about staying active, how to be a team player and how to keep trying when something seems hard.”
Dawn Messi joined the Mermaids in 1975 at 6 years old, and played through the senior division until she was 17. At the time, her parents volunteered as coach and manager.
“My older sister was already playing and my parents were involved in the league,” remembered Messi, 48, of Camarillo, who works for the Department of Defense at Point Mugu.
“But it also showed me how the city could come together as a community to ensure that us girls all had a league to play in that we could be proud of,” Messi said.
Yunuen Nava, who is now in her freshman year at UC Berkeley, joined the league’s senior division at the age of 13 in 2012, and played with it for five years.
“I was happy that I had the opportunity to play with the same team for five years and win a championship,” said Nava, 18, of Oxnard.
Playing in the league helped her develop leadership skills, how to work well in teams, and how to cope with different personalities. Nava also learned how to come together with her teammates to reach a common goal.
“These are all lesson and skills that I will always continue to apply in life,” Nava said.
The Mermaids also helped her pursue a higher education by awarding her a scholarship to help pay her college tuition.
“It meant a lot, considering I was always trying to balance my AP classes, softball and other extracurricular activities — and it made me realize that it was all worth it,” Nava said.
When Cassandra Mildbrandt joined the league at age 8, she didn’t know much about the sport.
“My parents signed me up,” recalled Mildbrandt, 22, of Port Hueneme.
She soon discovered that she loved the game and remained a player for eight years.
“This league is more than just somewhere to play softball,” Mildbrandt said. “It’s a place to build friendships, to have an escape from whatever is happening. But most importantly it’s a group of people who want to help you succeed in anything you do.”
The current generation
Kiara Harrison, 11, is now in her second year in the league.
“My mom told me about playing Mermaids when she was young,” recalled Kiara, of Oxnard.
“She shared how she traveled to Round Rock, Texas, with her all-star team, and how awesome it was to be on the No. 1 team for the few years she played out there,” Kiara said. “So I wanted to play, too.”
Today, Kiara enjoys league play because it gives her a chance to spend time with her mom and make new friends.
“I get to exercise and stay healthy, and my mom loves seeing me play,” Kiara said. “I enjoy being part of something I can share with my mom, and learning skills to become a better player.”
Hannah Salazar, 15, has been playing with the Mermaids for seven years.
She joined the league after her best friend told her she was on a softball team at E.O. Green.
“When she mentioned it, I was going into baseball with a lot of boys,” remembered Hannah, of Oxnard, who attends Channel Islands High School.
“I wanted to learn a sport that would be for girls so I could meet other girls like me,” she said. “After being here in the Mermaid league I have learned so much — hitting, throwing and getting better every year. I don’t think I would still be in sports if it wasn’t for the Mermaid league.”
The Mermaids Girls Softball League helps young ladies become better people, Joe said.
For instance, “We hold a coaching clinic each season and we really try to emphasize this with team leadership,” he said.
The league also issues several sportsmanship and volunteer awards, as well as an athlete scholarship each season, to promote the league ideals.
“Don’t get me wrong. … Everybody wants to win,” he said. “But if you have enough people out there believing that it’s about leaving an impression and being gracious and doing your best, then more often than not, we can make a positive impact.”
As far as the future of the league is concerned, a goal is to continue working with the city to get the playing fields up to par like every other field in the city, Joe said.
In 2014, a project began, to build a second field at Carty Park.
“The city was initially going to build us one but the funding bottomed out,” Joe said. “So the Mermaids raised over $20,000 in one season and we got the fencing built last year. And a group of awesome volunteers installed benches for the dugouts.”
This year they are able to build a scorekeeper bench and add bleachers for the fans, but it still needs lots of work — like leveling and diamond dirt, he noted.
“The city is keeping us in the loop and trying to see how they can help out, but it’s a work in progress and the season is set to start soon,” Joe said. “So even though we’ve been around a long time, we still have to face these challenges.”