Although neither made the final shortlist, the nominations reflect their outstanding ability and leadership and the exciting seasons both of them have had.
Conner Brown captained the Great Britain U18 Baseball Team at the European Junior Championship this past July, where the team achieved its best-ever result, and was the youngest player on the GB Senior Team at their European Championship in September.
Amazingly, Laura Hirai played for both the GB U18 Baseball Team at the European Junior Baseball Championship this summer as a pitcher and for the GB Junior Women’s Fastpitch Softball Team, where she was the starting second base player in key games as the team won the European Junior Softball Championship – the first European win for a GB Softball Team at any age level.
However, baseball and softball are not sports that are much in the public eye, and the 10 nominees who were eventually shortlisted for the Young Sports Personality of the Year included gymnasts Amy Tinkler, who won a bronze medal in Rio, and Ellie Downie; Paralympic gold medal-winning swimmer Ellie Robinson and silver medallist Tom Hamer; Manchester City Women’s Team forward Georgia Stanway; Paralympic archery gold medal winner Jess Stretton; Ospreys rugby player Keelan Giles; Paralympic gold medal-winning rower Lauren Rowles; Olympic weightlifter Rebekah Tyler; and England cricketer Sophie Ecclestone.
The top three, chosen by an expert panel, will be named on Blue Peter on Thursday 8 December.
Here is more background on our sports’ nominees, both coming from GB programmes that are producing some outstanding young players.
Laura Hirai, who attends Haberdashers Aske's School for Girls in London, has had an incredible year, playing for both the Under-19 Great Britain Softball Team and the U18 Great Britain Baseball team, an amazing feat for a female athlete.
Laura also made her mark in the USA this year as a guest coach at a Women in Baseball Clinic in Pennsylvania.
In softball, Laura played for Great Britain at the European Junior Softball Championship in Sant Boi in Spain, where the team went undefeated in winning GB’s first European Championship gold medal. Laura was the starting second baseman in the team’s key playoff games against the Czech Republic and Italy, and batted .400 in contributing significantly towards the team’s success.
The Great Britain U18 Baseball Team also made history this summer, retaining qualification in the European Championship group for the first time by finishing eighth. Laura was one of the team’s pitchers -- a star at the previous year’s tournament who continued to deceive opposition batters this year. Laura was one of only two girls playing in the European Junior Baseball Championship in a sport typically dominated by male players, but Laura’s commitment to excellence has ensured that she stands on equal ground and competes as effectively as any other athlete.
As the only female member of the GB 18U Baseball Team, Laura wants more girls to follow her lead. “Sports like football and baseball are seen as being for boys,” Laura said, “but girls can compete just as well. And even if you can’t play very well, you can still enjoy it, and that’s the great thing about sport.”
Laura’s father James said: “We’re really proud. When she plays, she is a baseball player and not a girl playing baseball, and she always plays with a smile on her face, which rubs off on everyone.”
Those who have coached and worked with Laura are equally fulsome in their praise.
Will Lintern, BaseballSoftballUK’s National Development Manager who oversaw Laura’s selection this summer, said: “Laura is a tremendous athlete and a great pitcher. She is passionate about the game, practices exceptionally hard and is prepared to tackle whatever is put in front of her.”
Laura’s leadership role in baseball has stretched across the pond to the USA, the home of the game. The Minnesota Girls’ Baseball Association included Laura in their baseball card series, produced to encourage girls to take up the sport. And so impressed was the Women in Baseball organisation by Laura’s achievements they invited her to a clinic for girls in Pennsylvania as a guest coach, where she was the only international coach to attend.
Conner Brown, who graduated from Shenfield High School near Brentwood in May 2016, has had an amazing year in his chosen sport.
Conner captained the Great Britain U18 National Team at the European Junior Championship in July, was selected by Major League Baseball as one of the top 50 young players in Europe to attend the MLB Elite Camp in August and played for the Senior Great Britain Team at the European Championship in September.
The Great Britain U18 Baseball Team made history this summer by retaining qualification in the European Championship group for the first time, and Conner’s leadership on and off the field, supported by his athletic ability, ensured that the team had what it needed to go the extra mile and make its mark on British baseball history.
Conner was the youngest player on this year’s Great Britain Senior Team that competed in the European Championship in The Netherlands, and what he lacked in age Conner made up for in presence and character. Conner’s primary role was to warm up and prepare relief pitchers before they entered the game, and he was able to soak up experience and knowledge for future European Championship tournaments where he will certainly be one of the stars for Great Britain.
Major League Baseball ranked Conner as one of the top 50 players aged 15-18 in Europe, and as such he was selected to attend both the Major League Baseball European Elite Camp and play on the European Academies All-Star Team this past summer. Conner was the only player from the UK to be selected to the Elite Camp.
Conner’s other achievements this year included:
• Becoming a recipient of a major SportsAid grant.
• Earning the role of starting catcher for the Herts Falcons in the National Baseball League.
• Being selected to BaseballSoftballUK’s High Performance Academy for the second consecutive year.
Conner served in many leadership roles throughout 2016. As a team captain of the Great Britain U18 National Team, one of his primary responsibilities was to welcome and introduce new team members into the group. He led by positive example and made sure that new players, some playing for Great Britain for the first time, felt a part of ‘GB Family’. His efforts helped ensure that there was a positive team dynamic throughout the tournament.
Conner has begun to take on a leadership role in the wider baseball community as well. In a year when he has been trying his hardest to make it to a level where he could earn a scholarship to play university baseball in the United States, Conner has also committed to supporting younger players lower down the talent pathway. In between his own workouts, Conner has taken on a mentoring and coaching role at the Academy and High Performance Academy, where he is passing on his own knowledge to the next generation.