By Jon Gerardi
The Daily Item
After Gabby Shrawder made an incredible diving catch in shallow center field to preserve Warrior Run's District 4 Class AA win over Loyalsock in May, Tay Parker probably exhaled a sigh of relief. At the same time, though, the Defenders ace pitcher was a little upset.
Sure, the win meant she and the Defenders were state tournament-bound yet again. It also meant that one of Parker's best friends -- Loyalsock catcher Amanda Daneker -- wasn't going to go out a district champion.
"It was very emotional for us knowing we both wanted to win districts for our last year in high school, but only one was going to walk away as a winner," Parker said.
As the teams lined up to shake hands after the game, Parker and Daneker simply hugged one another and began to cry together. They weren't just two high school friends at opposing schools; their friendship forged on the softball field goes back nearly a decade.
Since they were nine, the two have been playing softball either with or against one another at various levels, from Little League and ASA through high school.
"It's always a pleasure to play with Amanda. She is very competitive and is a great catcher," Parker said.
"Tay is an amazing person. She is someone you can go to just to talk and share a laugh with," Daneker said. "We have had so many laughs together. Taylor can always pick you up when you are down."
Perhaps, then, it was only fitting that their friendship culminated this summer when Parker and Daneker teamed up for the final time at the 18U ASA "A" National Championship with the Sports Connection, a team based out of Langhorne. The team features players from Pennsbury, Central Bucks South and Truman High School, with Parker and Daneker both coming from almost three hours away to their "home field," which is located roughly 10 minutes from New Jersey.
The 18U ASA National Championship in Salem, Va., featured 94 teams from more than 26 states.
The Sports Connection is no stranger to nationals. In the past six years, the squad has won three 18U "A" Pennsylvania state championships while also finishing as runner-up twice.
Parker and Daneker helped the Sports Connection go 8-3 en route to their runner-up place, losing 4-1 to a team from North Carolina.
"Going into nationals, Taylor and I knew this would be the last time we would play with each other. We told each other we were going to go all the way and win a national championship together," Daneker said. "We came up a little short, but coming in second place in nationals was something not many people can say. And I did it with one of my best friends."
Parker wasn't particularly excited once they clinched a nationals berth as she has been in years past, but finishing second in the nation is something takes pride in.
"The excitement didn't really kick in until bracket play started and we kept working our way up in the winners bracket," Parker said. "Finishing runners-up in 18U 'A' Nationals was one of the highlights of the history of Sports Connection, and also one of mine."
The Sports Connection played solid teams from California, Texas, Delaware, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and North Carolina, many of which were state champions.
Parker and Daneker didn't simply become great softball athletes overnight. That talent and success started from the first time they played with one another.
Parker joined Daneker's Gravediggers ASA team after Daneker's father called Parker and asked her to play. That's where it all began for a then 9-year-old Parker, many years before she'd become Warrior Run's all-time strikeout leader, and before Daneker would become an all-state catcher.
In their first tournament together, the Gravediggers took second place. They won numerous tournaments, including two state championships, and also even traveled to Orlando, Fla., for the ASA World Series.
"The first time I met Tay, we instantly became friends. Especially when I started catching her, we became even better teammates and friends," Daneker said. "We have shared so many experiences together, on and off the field, and (I) would never want to share them with anyone else."
Daneker eventually made it to the Sports Connection team while Parker stayed behind with the Gravediggers another year. It was then that Daneker's father again made a call to Parker to play with the Sports Connection. She had to try out during that year's state tournament in York to make the team.
"I was very nervous because it was with a different group of girls. I just moved up from 14U to 18U (and) I was the smallest on the team and we were playing in the state tournament," Parker said.
Parker and Daneker made their final ASA season together a memorable one by taking second in a very tough, talented field. It may have been a bittersweet victory, though, as their time playing with and against one another finally came to an end.
"It is upsetting knowing we won't have the opportunity to play against one another," Daneker said. "I liked playing against her, but loved it more when I was playing with her. It is going to be very different knowing that I won't have that opportunity again."
While both will play at the collegiate level, they never will meet up again as opponents. Daneker earned a scholarship to catch at Division I Coastal Carolina while Parker will be pitching at Division II Bloomsburg University.
"It was a big accomplishment to place second at nationals. It was a great feeling knowing that we were just as good and competitive as those western and southern softball states," Parker said. "Hopefully I will get another chance someday to participate in a national championship."