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Sunday, December 21, 2014

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Harper along for the ride with Michigan softball

By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 14, 2014

Natalie Harper just wanted to take a picture.

She and her family were in town for the 2010 Michigan football spring game and decided to check out a softball game afterwards.

To Natalie’s dad, Danny, it seemed like a fun way to extend the trip. The Harpers wanted to get everything they could out of their trip to Ann Arbor before heading home to Indiana.

When the family arrived at Alumni Field, Natalie went down by the fence to try to snap a shot of the players.

But she couldn’t quite get her camera to work. Seeing then-six-year-old Natalie struggling with her mom’s camera phone, Roya St. Clair — a senior catcher at the time — walked over to lend a hand.

Once Natalie had her picture, St. Clair handed the beaming young girl a softball and told her where to wait after the game. She promised that if Natalie was there when the game was over, she would take her around and help her get each player to sign the ball.

St. Clair didn’t know it at the time, but she wasn’t just giving Natalie Harper a softball and promising her some autographs. She was about to introduce Natalie to her second family.

* * *

Ten-year-old Natalie has 4q Deletion Syndrome, meaning the end of the long arm of her fourth chromosome was deleted from her genetic code. The implications of the rare chromosomal disorder are mostly physical and have already led to two heart surgeries for Natalie in her young life.

Though such a disorder might cause some people, especially of Natalie’s age, to view life in a negative fashion, Natalie doesn’t see it that way. Instead, she has a positive outlook, from the dugout for every single Michigan softball game.

After her first experience with St. Clair, she wanted to come back for more softball.

So the Harpers have made the trek to Ann Arbor for nearly every home game since 2010.

The rare occasions she misses a home contest are usually health-related. She had to skip a weekend last spring for her second heart surgery.

Danny saves up his vacation days from work for softball season every year so that when her body is up for it, he, his daughter and his wife, Courtney, can make it to every game.

And for the first three years, that meant a warm welcome from the players every weekend, and, sure, some special treatment. After all, Natalie was unquestionably their biggest fan.

But after a while, as Natalie’s greetings became a part of the post-game routine, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins decided to formalize Natalie’s involvement with the team.

“She started coming for pregame, so we would let her come in,” Hutchins said. “She would come spend her whole weekend to watch us play. So once she started coming, one time I just decided to let her come into the locker room. And she walked in and interrupted me.”

Ever since Natalie joined the team in the locker room and the dugout, she has done everything the players do. She’s on the field for player introductions, she writes in the dirt before the first pitch, and she jogs to the fence and back between every inning.

But on one occasion in April, senior outfielder Katie Luetkens looked over her shoulder and, to her surprise, there was no Natalie. She swiveled her head in both directions before finally seeing her veer into left field, grinning wider than ever.

Luetkens corralled Natalie, and the two ran back to the dugout hand-in-hand. Everything was fine.

But for a moment, Luetkens looked as though she had lost her shadow.

* * *

By the time Luetkens joined the team in 2011, greeting Natalie was embedded into the team’s routine.

Even before she earned locker room and dugout access, Natalie had stolen Luetkens’ heart with her zest for life and positivity.

“As soon as she came up to me and just wanted me to hang out with her, and just opened up, she grabbed my heart,” Luetkens said. “She’s been my sister ever since.”

Luetkens, now a co-captain, doesn’t get the kind of playing time some of her senior teammates do. She plays in the outfield, where fellow seniors Lyndsay Doyle and Nicole Sappingfield are regular starters.

While that’s never an easy role for a competitor to accept, her time spent on the bench has given her a unique perspective and a lot of time with Natalie.

When Natalie runs on the field, it’s with Luetkens. When Luetkens draws Mickey Mouse in the dirt before games, Natalie is responsible for the ears. And when Luetkens gets introduced, she’s right behind her.

According to Hutchins, there isn’t a better person on the team for Natalie to spend time with.

“Katie Luetkens really knows how to make you feel special,” she said.

Luetkens, though, feels like it’s Natalie who has changed her life.

“Here’s this little girl that has had nothing but a tough road,” Luetkens said. “This little girl that could easily just be down about life just lives every day like she might not have tomorrow. She’s happy all the time.

“There’s gonna be bad games, we aren’t going to win everything, there are going to be mistakes. Natalie never fails to be there to make you smile.”

When Luetkens talks about Natalie, she glows with excitement. It’s clear that that this isn’t lip service or charity. Luetkens has a sister in Natalie, and Natalie has one in her.

“I never wanted her to feel like she was a burden, or that she couldn’t do anything we could do,” Luetkens said. “She’s special and I want her to have a good experience. Sometimes she’ll be tired and ask for a piggyback ride, and I never say no. I know she loves it.”

Her favorite things to do with Natalie are singing and dancing. Normally, she doesn’t like either. Luetkens says she can’t sing and that she can’t really dance, and yet, before every game, down on the infield, the two are doing spins and pointing and just about shouting the lyrics to songs.

Atop the list of favorite songs is Taylor Swift’s ‘22’. Natalie knows a lot of lyrics to a lot of songs, but she knows every word to that one.

So for her surrogate sister’s 22nd birthday, Natalie made her a birthday video to the song. Luetkens still plays it sometimes if she’s having a bad day.

There have been times, though, when Luetkens has gotten caught up in a game and lost track of Natalie in the dugout.

“One time,” Luetkens recalls, “she went up to Hutch (in the middle of a pressure situation), and just said, ‘It’s OK, Hutch. Don’t worry about it.’ I was like, ‘Oh no … I lost track of her,’ but Hutch just turned around and laughed.”

Though some might find Hutchins intimidating — especially at game time — Natalie has learned her presence and courage from Luetkens and her teammates and doesn’t break a sweat.

* * *

Back home in Indiana, Natalie has just started playing softball.

So far, her favorite position is catcher.

Physically, she’s not up to the size of most girls her age, but she does seem to have one huge advantage over her teammates.

“I think she has picked up on stuff that Hutchins tells the team,” said Natalie’s mom, Courtney Harper. “He’ll ask them what they should do in a situation, and Natalie will say, ‘Well, I do this and this person does that.’ Her coach came up to me and was like, ‘I’m not the one teaching her that.’ ”

That’s right, he isn’t. While most youth athletes are shaped personally and athletically by their coaches, Natalie has 25 coaches teaching her all about softball and more that she could only really learn from them.

“It’s great that she has these girls to look up to and see what she should be aspiring to be, how she should treat people, how she should carry herself,” Courtney said.

There are plenty of fans that the team sees week in and week out, and they treat those fans well too. They never turn down an autograph request, and they’ll always pose for a quick picture, especially with one of their younger supporters.

But Natalie is different. Her meteoric rise from fan to VIP is a real reflection of the mark she leaves on the team at every interaction.

“She’s just this ball of energy that comes and is excited about whatever day it is,” Luetkens said. “She’s just so easygoing and just loves life. And for a kid that’s had to go through so much … I think that’s what has (made the biggest impression) on me.”

Added Hutchins: “She’s just a part of our group. We brought her inside because … I mean look what we have. We can give her something that makes her happy. And she makes us happier than anybody.”

As a bat girl, Natalie is tasked with collecting the bat from the hitter in the on-deck circle before she steps to the plate. Another, though, is much more suited to her bubbling personality — her daily joke that she tells the team before each game.

During the team’s series against No. 12 Minnesota, Michigan’s toughest home games of the year, the team needed those jokes to keep loose.

Before the April 19 game, the joke was: “Where does a bee go to the bathroom? The bee-pee station.”

The next day, before a 7-1 win, it was: “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Hawaii. Hawaii who? I’m good, Hawaii you?”

The team eagerly listens to the jokes and lets out a loud “ahhhh” in unison after each one.

After that win, Natalie went around taking a picture with each player. And after almost every one, the player would ask her when they would next get to see her.

“I’m not sure,” Natalie would say. “I want to go (to the next game, at Purdue), but I’m not sure.”

The players then would turn to Courtney and Danny Harper, like an elementary-school kid does to their friends’ parents begging for a sleepover, with the same question.

“We’re seeing if it will work,” they would say, over and over.

“There’s never a time that she’s around that we aren’t just glowing,” Luetkens said. “When she isn’t there, we really miss her.”

* * *

Earlier this season, Luetkens bought the team bracelet charms with “Team 37” on them. She made sure Natalie had a charm too, which she now wears as a necklace.

Luetkens will graduate from the University after this season, but Natalie will still be there. That’s been one of the hardest thoughts for Luetkens to deal with — now she’s going to miss Natalie.

It will be hard for Natalie too, but a new group of new faces will enter the dugout next year, and they will all get used to seeing her bright smile at every home game.

“Honestly, she doesn’t even tell us about the dugout,” Courtney said. “That’s her special place, and those are her sisters. She keeps it close to her sleeve.”

While Luetkens pursues pediatrics, Natalie will continue assuring Hutchins and practicing her stand-up act.

Now that the Wolverines have won the regular-season Big Ten Championship, they will add a new picture to their wall of conference championships teams. All of those pictures look mostly the same, except the one from 2013. That one has a small bright-faced girl lighting up the front row, posing right in front of Luetkens.

Natalie didn’t need to take a picture of that moment.

She was right in the middle of it.