MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Some of the top high school softball players in Minnesota are packing up to head to nationals in Tennessee.  However, the Minnesota Vortex will be one player short.

Their star pitcher, 16-year-old Lexi Kretsch, died just two weeks ago.

The highly recruited player was driving alone in Mankato when troopers say another car crossed Highway 169. Kretsch’s blazer flipped, and she later died at the Mayo Clinic.

Her teammates were at the hospital to say goodbye. They’ve also decided to train through their grief and compete — in Kretsch’s name — in one of the most elite tournaments in the country.

Kretsch’s mother sat down with WCCO to talk about Kretsch, the reason the team is so inspired.

Instead of Kretsch, they will take purple bracelets with her number and stickers on their cars. On their wrists, they will write, “Smile.”

And instead of packing, Kretsch’s mother, Jennifer, is grieving.

“No sleep, hard to eat, there’s just a hole in my heart,” she said. “I just feel like part of me is missing.”

Kretsch grew up an only child in Waconia. Her mother raised her alone.

“Physically, emotionally, financially — just the two of us,” she said.

And now, there is just one.

“It’s too quiet around here,” she said. “When she was here, it was not.”

Nor was it sad when Kretsch was around; photo after photo shows her trademark expression, an expression she even carried onto the field.

“I told her years ago, ‘When you smile, you pitch better, you play better,'” her mother said.

And it worked: She kept that five-letter word on her face as her coaches sent out scouting videos like this of the 5-foot-1 Minnesota Vortex pitcher who was among the best in the state.

“I hoping that some of those colleges who were looking at her could somehow make her an honorary member of their team,” her mother said. “That would mean a lot to her. I just want to share her smile with everybody and not let her be forgotten.”

The team is going to wear bracelets with her number and give goodie bags to their opposing teams, asking them to smile for Kretsch. Kretsch had dreamed of helping people by being a pediatric nurse. That didn’t happen, but it seems she saved at least two lives in another way — her heart valves and liver have been successfully transplanted.

Kretsch was also an outstanding student.

The Minnesota Vortex plan to start a memorial tournament and to retire her jersey next year. Waconia High School has already retired her jersey.

An account is set up online for Kretsch’s mother and for memorials.

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