Jim Brackin, coach of the Shamrocks 16-and-under softball team, has barely started gathering the photos, videos and memories from his team's whirlwind tour through Japan earlier this month.

"It is impossible to explain really how much fun it was, how amazing a trip it was," Brackin said.

For one week, the Shamrocks experienced Japan to its fullest. They played seven games against Japanese high school teams, mixing the games with an extensive tour of the island nation and receiving grand welcomes wherever they went.

When they made their first stop in Mishima, where they spent two days and played teams from local high schools, the team bus was met with a long line of Japanese supporters greeting them at the school.

"They treated us like celebrities over there," Brackin said. "They couldn't have been more hospitable. It couldn't have been a better trip."

The Shamrocks went 4-1-2 in games in Mishima, Shizuoka and Tokyo. The games were exhibitions, allowing the team to have a lineup of 13 players for each game.

"They were all very well-coached teams; they were fundamentally very good," Brackin said. "They all were great at fielding ground balls."

Between games, the team took a bus tour through the countryside and a bullet train into Tokyo, and attended a sumo wrestling tournament and a party that featured native Japanese drumming. During the party, the entire American contingent, led by the players, got on stage to play the drums.

"If my wife and I just went to visit, it wouldn't have been near the experience it was for the team," Brackin said. "I think for a lot of the girls, they won't ever again have an experience quite like that."

No Miracle Needed So Far

Before the PONY National East Zone championships begin this week in Loudoun County, Ashburn Shooting Stars Gold Coach Bryan Tiplady plans to show his 14-and-under team the latest motivational movie to be released -- "Miracle," the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

But if the Shooting Stars Gold is among the finalists at the tournament, which will also feature teams in the 10- and 12-and-under divisions, it won't be a miracle. Ashburn heads into the week surging, coming off a first-place finish at the Blue/Gray Shootout in Laurel last weekend.

"We have been excelling," Tiplady said. "We've really been on a roll."

For the Shooting Stars Gold, the tournament starts what could be almost two weeks of nonstop softball. Next Sunday, the team will travel to Columbus, Ohio, to play in the NSA championships.

"If we make the [PONY] championship on Saturday night, we'll be getting in a bus right after the game" and heading toward Columbus, Tiplady said. "Being at home [for the PONY Nationals] is almost bittersweet sometimes, because you're forced to miss some of the other big national meets. But this year, it works out well for us."