San Mateo Softball Players Embark on a Historical Trip to Japan

By Maddie Heaps ( | June 26, 2018, 10:16 a.m. (ET)

In just 105 days, 17 young girls, their coaches, and chaperones will head to Toyonaka, Japan in the city’s first-ever softball exchange. This trip is 50 years in the making.

“The sister city relationship is over 50 years old, and there were many events between San Mateo and Toyonaka that have helped in leading up to this historic trip,” notes Mike Blondino, a USA Softball Council Member Emeritus.

Beginning in 1963, Toyonaka, Japan, and San Mateo, Calif. became sister cities, dedicated to “promoting international goodwill, cultural exchanges, and ultimately breaking down barriers and promoting peace between our countries”. The relationship between the two cities has led to many ambassador programs for its citizens, mainly its youth, including a long-standing biannual baseball exchange dating back to 1979. But Vincent DeFriese, President of the San Mateo Youth Softball Association (SMYSA) saw an opportunity for something more. 

“A few years ago I asked myself, why aren’t the girls playing,” said DeFriese.  “So this thought pushed me to start reaching out to the Toyonaka – San Mateo Sister City Association to inquire about a softball exchange.” 

With DeFriese’s commitment to the cause, he enlisted the help of Blondino, now working for the city of San Mateo, to get the ball rolling.

Blondino had an integral part in the establishment of the softball coalition, setting up a meeting during the sister cities’ 50th anniversary celebration.

“We have a Japanese Garden in Central Park that was built as a bond of friendship between the two cities and dedicated 52 years ago,” noted Blondino.  “During the 50th anniversary celebration [of the garden] that I oversaw, there was a meeting set up between a group of interested parties to get a girls softball exchange moving forward.  As part of that meeting which Vince and I took part in, we signed an agreement to work together in all ways possible to have the exchange happen in 2018.”

With the agreement signed, the city, its employees and DeFriese set off to make this trip as incredible as its historic origins. As Head Coach, DeFriese went out to field the best team possible for this trip, searching not only for players with the best skills but those who understood the magnitude of this trip to everyone involved.

When asked about the tryout process, DeFriese noted that, “Not only did the [players] have an extensive tryout, but each player went through an interview process, as they will serve as ambassadors of the city and our country. Being the first time this is being done, it is very important that we represent well! I want to see this program continue for years to come.”


2018 San Mateo-Toyonaka Exchange Team


Being chosen for a team that will travel on such a historic exchange is not lost on its players or their parents. The girls on the team range from ages 11-14, but their maturity and understanding of the meaning of this trip exceeds the years of life they’ve lived. Rae D’Amato, the team’s youngest member, notes that to her, “Being a part of this historic change means the world to me.  It is so empowering to know that I am a part of the first girls’ softball team to go to Japan.  The boys have been able to go since the late 1900’s.  It is finally time to have the girls’ go too. I will cherish this forever because I know I was a part of an empowering historic exchange.”

The 10-day trip will not only include softball, but the team members will also meet Toyonaka’s city council, attend a day of classes at two different Japanese schools, and see the sights of Japan. The San Mateo girls will play against two different Japanese softball teams, and Blondino and DeFriese are working with the Japanese on mixing the teams to play as one. 

Most members of the team are playing travel softball for different teams in the summer, so the trip has been scheduled for October 9-17 while the team will begin practicing together at the beginning of August. They will have to learn some new softball skills, as the Japanese play with a completely different ball and with their bases at further distances than Americans. While their practice does not begin until later this summer, members of the team are already taking their required cultural classes together and preparing for their journey across the world.

The meaning of this trip extends past softball - it’s an opportunity to open doors for those in the grassroots organizations of USA Softball to promote the common good and the game of softball all around the world.

“I’ve seen softball open doors for those involved over my years in USA Softball,” said Blondino.  “This trip opens doors for our players, coaches, and chaperones to another country. I would say that helping to grow our sport in new ways has always been a focus with USA Softball, and this trip to Toyonaka fits into that thinking.”

For those girls on the trip, the skills and memories they have will extend their USA Softball experience past the game itself.

“I think the skills Rae has from softball are forever developing and will continue to do so throughout her softball career,” said Caren D’Amato, Rae D’Amato’s mother.  “However, the skills she will learn through this trip will be forever changing.  The citizens of Japan will change her socially, emotionally, culturally…the list can go on.  Having the opportunity to go to another country and experience the people, her peers, and the culture will open her eyes and change her perspective on life forever.”

The team is fundraising $85,000 to cover the costs of this life-changing trip: you can help them by donating at Additionally, checks can be sent to:


San Mateo Sister City Association

P.O. Box 729

San Mateo, CA 94401


2018 San Mateo Toyonaka Exchange Roster

Ariana Naguit

Ashley Driscoll

Brooke Tran

Caitlin Regan

Claire Shelton

Erika Bagtas

Hailey Fanucchi

Jacqueline Landucci

Julia Rosenberg

Kiana Castro

Lei ‘Ahola Ah Tou

Leila Sadek

Makayla Penate

Marlena Marshall

Nai’a Valencia

Rae D’Amato

Sydney Lee