Raising awareness of disorders drives Santa Rosa softball team's championship season

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The Santa Rosa WSC Hackers, a traveling softball team for girls 16 and under, just won the National Softball Association’s Pacific Coast World Series — but the impact the team is making off the softball diamond is more important than any trophy.

The Hackers play for something more than championships — they play to spread awareness of Williams Syndrome, a genetic condition that can lead to cardiovascular disease, developmental delays and learning challenges.

Williams Syndrome is a genetic disorder similar to autism but with different symptoms. The WSC team, which stands for “Williams Syndrome Crew,” tries to spread awareness and acceptance of autism as well.

How did a group of teenage girls come to dedicate their softball team to a disease that affects approximately 1 in 10,000 people worldwide?

It starts with Kyle “Chops” Sieker.

Sieker doesn’t have a daughter on the team, but his 5-year-old daughter, Laila, may be the most important member of the WSC family.

Laila suffers from Williams Syndrome. The Siekers are close friends with Brandin Shanoff — the manager of the Hackers — and his daughter Sierra, a Montgomery High School senior who is also a player for the WSC Hackers.

Shanoff and Sieker told the team they could come up with a name for the team, and they came back with “The Williams Syndrome Crew.”

Sierra Shanoff told Sieker, “We want to play for Laila.”

“I’m not smart enough to come up with the word to describe how I felt when they told me that,” said Sieker, who can’t help but get emotional when talking about the team. “I am so thankful, I feel blessed. It’s just priceless.”

The Hackers’ head coach, Shanoff, said his reaction to the girls’ suggestion was, “Damn, from the minute she said that, that’s really all she had to say. We all started buzzing off the idea and just jumped in together.”

Sieker said since day one the outpouring of support has been “just crazy.”

He said that at every game a parent or someone from the other team stops and asks something about Williams Syndrome.

The team has created an informational pamphlet about Laila Sieker and Williams Syndrome to hand out to people interested in the meaning behind their name.

The team’s jerseys have the Williams Syndrome hand sign on the front, along with puzzle pieces on the numbers to represent autism.

Sieker says random people at games constantly stop him to tell him a story about someone they know suffering from a condition similar to Williams Syndrome or autism.

“So many people are so thankful the girls are doing this,” Sieker said. “It just shows they understand life isn’t so easy for everyone, and they want to do something about it.”

Shanoff talked with the girls about the possibility of Laila never being able to play softball because of her condition.

“Tears were in the air and that’s all I really had to say,” he said. “The team has played with really no pressure since, because they know they are playing for something bigger than themselves. They know they are playing for Laila and everyone else affected by these conditions.”

Sieker said his daughter isn’t completely aware of everything the team has done for her yet, but he is keeping photos and everything else he can to explain it to her later on.

“One thing she knows is she has 13 girlfriends who are like family to her,” he said. “Anything the girls get my girl gets, and again, it’s just priceless.”

What has impressed Sieker the most is the bond the girls created through playing for Williams Syndrome. Six of the girls attend Montgomery High School, where Shanoff is a coach, while others come from six different Sonoma County high schools.

And when they play, it’s like they’ve been playing together all their lives — and it shows, he said.

The team has a sparkling record of 30-5 this season and recently returned from Reno with the Pacific Coast World Series title.

In Reno, the team was greeted with a standing ovation during their introduction because of their efforts to raise awareness for Williams Syndrome and autism. The team went on to go 5-0 in the tournament, beating teams from Washington and Canada.

“It’s more than a team; It’s like a family,” Sierra Shanoff said. “It just feels natural.”

The Hackers’ season is now over, but the coach has already started getting things ready so the team can expand.

Shanoff said several coaches from around the area have already reached out in hopes of joining the Williams Syndrome Crew’s cause.

He expects there to be a few more teams playing for Williams Syndrome and autism awareness next season — even a Little League boys team has shown interest in joining the Hackers’ cause, he said.

Shanoff and Sieker are in the process of building a Facebook page and website with more information about the team, including ways to purchase WSC gear and sponsorship opportunities.

The Hackers will also hold a tryout for potential players for the fall season in the near future, Shanoff said.

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