BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - This year's Heights Heat PAL U8 softball tournament held a larger meaning than naming the spring season's champion. This Sunday's tournament was played in honor of Annie Young, who recently passed away on May 4, 2019. 

The six teams competing in the tournament lined the field holding signs and some wore specially made #19 jerseys in solidarity and to honor Annie. The Scotch Plains team greeted each Heights Heat player with a rose. Participating teams: Heights Heat, Mountainside, New Providence, Scotch Plains, Garwood and Watchung.

It has been difficult for Annie's young teammates to get through the season with such a large void in their heart and in their line-up -- however, "the support, encouragement and generosity of spirit that we've received as a team from everyone in our community has been incredible," said Heights Heat U8 coach Bret Sayre. "I want to personally thank all of the coaches and players from our fellow 8U teams who have gone well out of their way to help make our difficult season a little easier and help us honor someone who we all held in such close and high regard." 

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Berkeley Heights PAL Softball Commissioner Dan Monaco started this league five years ago to provide an opportunity for young girls to participate in a fun environment and to compete against other towns. He announced on Sunday, the tournament going forward will be renamed in Annie's honor. "She embodied the spirit and motivation for the creation of this league," said Monaco. "Young girls with the enthusiasm and energy that play the sport of softball that Annie showed for the past few years as part of the Heat softball family deserve a place to compete. And, today, that place is now named in honor of Annie."

"In addition to naming the tournament in Annie's honor -- I am officially announcing, as of today, that Heat softball officially retires Annie's #19 for all future seasons," said Monaco.

Sayre, who has had the privilege of coaching Annie for two years, said, "She was always both full of joy and fiercely competitive -- usually at the same time. She was a great first baseman who peppered line drives all over the field, she was full of spirit and leadership. She was everything you could want in a player. She was our number 19 and will be forever, as we retire her number today."

"Softball has always been much more than a game -- our girls aren't just teammates, they are classmates and playmates. Our parents are more than just coaches, supporters and spectators, they are friends and they are family. There has always been a special bond between this 8U softball group, and these last two-plus weeks has only had that bond grow stronger."

The coaches presented Annie's parents, Laura and Paul Young, with a representation of her softball career, including two championships and the home run derby title from this spring. 

Laura Young addressed the crowd and thanked the league for honoring Annie with this beautiful tribute. "Paul, Henry and I want to thank you for honoring Annie with this beautiful tribute today -- so many teams, and surrounding towns -- she is being remembered by so many. Annie loved to play sports -- and she was pretty competitive -- her love really came from her desire to have fun with her friends. She liked to push herself to run faster and hit harder -- but more than that, she liked to encourage her teammates and hear them encouraging her." 

"Before and since her passing, Annabelle had a really wonderful life. She had so much fun playing among all of you and with all of you. We are forever grateful for that. Now to all the teams that are playing today -- what we want to say -- is what we say to Henry and Annie -- 'Play hard and have fun' -- play hard and have fun everyday," said Young.

With that said, the U8 Heat team surrounded the Young family with a big group hug. The girls remained on the field for the singing of the national anthem accompanied by Timothy Cole , Annie's musical theater teacher at Wharton School of Performing Arts.   

Annie's older brother Henry threw the ceremonial first pitch to his dad Paul to officially kick off the tournament. Commissioner Monaco let out the call to "Play Ball" and the games began. Play for Annie!

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Play for Annie: When we say to play for Annie, we want you girls to remember it's not about winning or losing, it is about remembering her spirit, drive and joy. Playing for Annie means playing because you love the game and the people you get to play it with. So, everyone, go out there and love the game today. -- Bret Sayre

Heights Heat has set up a scholarship fund in Annie's name through a combined donation from the Mount St Mary's pitching school and Upper Deck out of Berkeley Heights. 

The Young family has set up the Annabelle Forever Young Foundation. The Foundation will be used to support youth sports and local student athletes. The scholarships will be awarded to students who exemplify and further the values that Annie lived her life -- and represent the impact her life had on our community. Annabelle Forever Young Foundation Inc., 1253 Springfield Ave. Suite 107, New Providence, NJ 07974.