from left, Emily Allard, Carol Bruggeman, TC event director Stephanie Klaviter
The National Fastpitch Coaches Association began as a way to help college softball coaches assemble best practices when the sport was catching serious momentum in the mid-1980s, and it’s obvious how the solid roots of the past have led to a flowering and productive organization today.
With more than 5,700 members and representation from all 50 states and 11 foreign countries, the NFCA presses on with a relentless itch to share information and insight. It’s the kind of thoughtful conversation that helps inform coaches and excite players regardless of age and experience; if there’s a strategy or scheme or theory worth considering, the NFCA has tools to help you build a plan.
Triple Crown Sports was lucky enough to have the NFCA swing through the office in late March, and we sat down with Carol Bruggeman (Executive Director) and Emily Allard (Marketing and Sponsorship Specialist, Travel Ball Coordinator) to talk about the sport as it stands in 2019.
Q: In what was a surprise to many people, the softball community seemed to broadly agree that the days of getting college commitments from 13-years-olds had to end. How did you feel after the NCAA banned active recruiting of players before the start of the junior year of high school?
Carol: We’re very proud of that fact, and for not only the 14u group but the 12u group. The whole community knows; it wasn’t only a softball issue, but softball was on top of the list in terms of the youngest age of the earliest commits. It was exciting for us to see the softball community come together: high school coaches, travel ball coaches, colleges at all levels, parents and players. We had a lot of players come forward on video and say they were in favor. We tried to hit it from all angles. For years and years, people said there was no way to change it, no way to legislate it. But the powers that be took it as a challenge. I give credit to Samantha Eckstrand, our legal counsel, a lot of credit. And to Joanna Lane, our director of education and D-I liaison, who coordinated a lot of those efforts. The community came together and said, we have an issue. It’s not great for 12- and 13- and 14-year-olds to be making decisions about college. Nobody liked it, and it got done pretty quickly to be honest.
Emily: Everyone took a sigh of relief; a weight was lifted off most importantly from the kids’ shoulders, but also the coaches. A lot of them felt they were in this agent role between parent and players and college coaches. Everyone stepped back and remembered why they were in the game in the first place … to focus on teaching again as opposed to getting these young kids recruited. They can get back to coaching them and helping them be not just the best players they can be, but the best humans they can be as well.
Q: There’s plenty of competition for the attention of athletes; what’s the approach the NFCA has for the continued growth of the sport?
Emily: Our community in general is such big sharers; everybody loves the spot and is invested in it and in giving back. We talk in the office a lot how the legends in our game are still coaching; having this open forum where everyone is willing to share for the betterment of the game. We’re still pretty new; this association is just 35 years old, and it’s fun to see everyone come together, especially for the education. That’s what the NFCA is here for, making sure anyone involved with parents and players has the right knowledge, and the good x’s and o’s … to get them credible information so they are able to pass it along.
Carol: That’s our challenge every day, to make sure we are keeping softball out in front and being innovative. It starts with the players – they have to have fun with their first experience with softball, or they will go to another sport. How do you have fun, have a good time? You need a good coach. That coach makes it a great experience, and that’s where we come in. We want to educate the coaches; make sure they can show that passion and teach the game. As it moves along, our coaches can continue to grow with education. We have various touchpoints – podcasts, webinars, clinics, a convention, classes – I could go on and on. Depending on what level you are on, we have something for you. We’re always trying to innovate. One of the things we did this year for high school travel ball coaches is an exclusive Coaching Tools Package. It’s a practice plan, and that’s what these coaches want. How can I implement something, and how can I get my hands on it right now? Every year you are a member, you get a fresh set of plans and videos that are just for our grass-roots members. We also have a Charts Package – 25 charts that high school, travel ball, college coaches would love to use. That’s been very well received, and the cool thing is all those charts came from member coaches.
Q: Softball will be played in the 2020 Olympics in Japan, but it’s off the board again for the 2024 Games in Paris. It puts a real crimp in the hopes of pushing fastpitch further than the NCAA championships, agreed?
Emily: I remember growing up and watching the (2008) Olympics, and I wanted to be Jennie Finch and play at Arizona, and I saw it – it brought me to the pro league. Young girls having those roles models, who look and talk and act like them, it’s exactly what our sport needs. We have to what we can to help the game grow internationally so we’re not on the bubble every time, and finding a way to get the pro league to be where we all want it to be. It starts with us. If people want to see softball grow at the highest level, they have to support it.
Carol: A kick in the gut. For four different Olympiads we were in, with no issue. We were out, now we’re back in for 2020, and in 2024 we’re going to be out again. We’re hoping in 2028 we’ll be back in, since it’s in Los Angeles and we’ll be hosting. Unfortunately, as popular as softball is in the Americas, the Asian countries and Australia, in the European part of the world it’s not super popular. We have partnered with the European Softball Coaches Association to help them educate their coaches and grow the sport. The more we grow it in Europe, where there’s the majority of the voting power in the International Olympic Committee, the better. USA Softball is doing clinics all over the world, trying to make sure fastpitch softball is considered down the road. But it’s a kick in the gut; it affects people being able to play after college. Our pro league continues to battle and try to get on track and grow; this year there are a lot of international teams in the pro league which is great, but I do worry a bit about what that means for the pro league down the road when we aren’t in the Olympics. We support the pro league, of course. We have to keep doing what we can to educate coaches not only in this country but globally, so softball can sustain its success and make it a no-brainer to be in the Olympics.
More than 75 teams will use the TCS Bomber Shootout this weekend to spark the fastpitch season to life.
The sold-out tournament (featuring teams from Texas, Oklahoma and even one from Colorado) is based in and around Austin, TX and brings out teams in the 10u, 12u and 14u age groups. The 2019 edition is the 19th running of the event; Triple Crown started its official partnership of the tourney with the Texas Bombers in 2015.
“Programs will be getting some of their highly touted teams on the field for the first time, so we expect the level of play to be very solid,” said Sarah Pow, tournament director. “It’s a great early look at how teams might showcase their lineups during the summertime schedule.”
The 14u Gold champion last year was Diamond Sports Hotshots/Nelson, who got past Glory Adkins Gold, 3-0. Weather sidelined the 12u Gold bracket, but the Silver was won by SA Angels ARod, who beat Texas Glory 2024, 5-1. At 10u, the Bombers CTX was the last team standing after an 8-4 win over Texas Glory 2K7.
There are multiple Texas events still available – next up is the June 7-9 Texas State Championships, which will be held in the Metroplex (Allen/Plano/McKinney). The July 18-21 Southwest Summer Nationals is packed with extra dimensions, including camp workouts with University of Texas coach Mike White.
Follow scores and results HERE
Nearly 150 teams took some serious swings at the OC Coastal Classic, a top-notch Triple Crown fastpitch event in SoCal that included games at the new Great Park facility in Irvine.
18s at Great Park – The SoCal Athletics ran the table, winning six games, but they were tested in the finale, just slipping past Firecrackers-Brashear, 2-1. The Athletics allowed just eights runs over the course of the tournament.
18 Open – OC BatBusters-Bracamonte was super tough in the circle on Sunday, winning three games and eventually the title, thanks to a 6-0 victory over Firecrackers-Kimura. The Bracamonte squad allowed just one run Sunday.
16s at Great Park – Nobody swung the bats quite like the Corona Angels-Howard team, which plated 28 runs in three games Sunday to claim the crown. Runner-up OC Tigers Lastrapes played well under pressure, winning 5-4 and 3-2 to reach the championship game.
16 Open – SoCal Athletics Marinakis/Fox came through with a tight 4-3 victory in the title game over Ohana Tigers-Herrera/Halleen. The Athletics did not allow a run in three pool play games, then started Sunday with a tough 2-1 victory over Firecrackers-Brashear/Duarte.
14s at Great Park – Sunday was one to remember for Athletics-Mercado/Tidd, who started with a 4-1 win and then used two nail-biters (5-4 and 7-6) before getting to the finale, where they topped Utah Fastpitch-Korth, 10-6. It was a rematch from pool play, where the teams battled to a 2-all tie.
14 Open – A 39-team division battled it out with Breakers Labs Black polishing off a long day with a 3-0 victory over American Pastime-Velasquez/Farnworth. Breakers Labs allowed five runs in five games but showed ability to hit when needed, slipping by SD Brashear Mata/Garcia by an 8-7 margin in the quarterfinals.
12 Open – Relentless work in the circle paved the way to the title for Power Surge Berndes, which allowed two runs in pool play then posted victories of 6-0, 8-0, 10-0 and 6-0 on Sunday.
10 Open – SoCal Choppers-Franco came through pool play with three wins, 22 runs and zero runs allowed; Sunday was more of the same. The Choppers won 10-0 and 8-2 to reach the final, and they eased past Synergy Fastpitch by a 12-3 margin for the crown.
FORT COLLINS, Colo. – Triple Crown Sports has entered into a multi-year agreement with BallerTV that will add livestream video coverage to more than 20 Triple Crown Fastpitch events, beginning in 2019.
BallerTV will have coverage of all fields and all games of the following 2019 events:
Bomber Shootout March 2-3
Spring Stampede May 11-12
Triple Crown OKC May 31-June 3
Zoom Into June June 6-9
Mountain Magic June 6-9
Texas State Championships June 7-9
Zoom Juniors June 8-9
Colorado State Championships June 14-16
Valley Invite June 14-16
Sparkler Juniors July 1-7
Chicago Midwest Championships July 11-14
10u, 12u World Series July 12-17
16u, 18u World Series July 15-20
Southeast Championships July 14-18
Southwest Summer Nationals July 18-21
14u World Series July 22-27
Super 72 Sept. 13-15
Ronald McDonald Oct. 18-20
City of Lights #1 Oct. 25-27
City of Lights #2 Nov. 8-10
Don Battles On Nov. 15-17
Visit baller.tv/triplecrownfastpitch for links and notifications for all of these events.
Baller TV will also share coverage at the TC/USA Nationals (July 15-18) with FloSoftball; FloSoftball has eight fields, with BallerTV handling the remainder.
BallerTV was founded in 2016 by co-founders Robert Angarita and Aaron Hawkey to provide live video coverage of amateur sports while creating sports media job opportunities in local communities. As of 2018, BallerTV is now a coast-to-coast operation with a network of thousands of broadcasters across the country.
“BallerTV is extremely excited to be partnering with Triple Crown Sports,” said BallerTV Account Executive Daniel Chun. “As one of the leaders in the fastpitch world, Triple Crown continues to transcend the space and host top-tier events. We’re thrilled to provide a live stream service for athletes, parents and coaches to take their game to the next level.”
“We are thrilled to be partners with BallerTV, which is a forward-looking and dynamic media company that will help more people follow the action at our tournaments,” said Andy Hansen, VP of Media and Branding at Triple Crown. “Our fastpitch events are nationally known for their value to college recruiters, so we expect coaches to be especially interested in using BallerTV to track the progress of players who may end up on their rosters someday.”
About Triple Crown Sports
Based in Fort Collins, CO., Triple Crown Sports has been producing college and youth events for more than 35 years, with approximately 90 events scheduled for 2019 in the arenas of youth baseball, fastpitch, basketball, lacrosse and volleyball. The TCS footprint includes both the preseason and postseason WNIT basketball events and the men’s and women’s Cancun Challenge tournaments in November. Triple Crown is also powering “WNIT” concept events in D-I softball (NISC) and volleyball (NIVC), with those two events debuting in 2017. TCS youth fastpitch tournaments (including the 900-team Sparkler/Fireworks event) draw the nation’s finest club programs, and hundreds of college coaches attend TCS events for recruiting purposes.
FORT COLLINS, CO – Triple Crown Sports has announced a partnership with FloSports, the innovator in live digital sports and original content, to provide live and on-demand coverage of multiple TCS events in youth fastpitch and college softball on FloSoftball.com, as well as men’s and women’s college basketball on FloHoops.com.
Beginning in 2019, FloSoftball will live stream all 34 softball games at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge set for two sessions on Feb. 7-10 and Feb. 14-17, featuring college powerhouses such as Baylor, BYU, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Washington.
On July 1-7, FloSoftball will cover the action on 12 fields at the Colorado Sparkler and Fireworks, Triple Crown’s massive youth fastpitch event that draws more than 900 teams annually. FloSoftball will also live stream four games -- 14u, 16u, 18u Power Pool and All-American -- that highlight Festival Nights in Westminster and Aurora, Colo.
Later in the month, FloSoftball will air eight fields during the TC/USA Nationals, Triple Crown’s own highly regarded youth fastpitch national championship in North Atlanta on July 15-18.
The slate of events ends for the year at the men’s and women’s Cancun Challenge. FloHoops will live stream all of the women’s games on Nov. 28-30, as well as the Mayan Division of the men’s event on Nov. 26-27. This event has more than a 10-year history of drawing some of the strongest and most exciting D-I college basketball programs from around the country.
“Teaming up with Triple Crown Sports to cover multiple youth and college events is a great opportunity to showcase some of today’s top up-and-coming players and collegiate student-athletes,” said Adam Fenn, FloSports SVP of Global Rights Acquisitions and Strategy. “TCS consistently organizes some of the biggest events and continues to build premium events that amplify the fan experience every year.”
“We are thrilled to partner with FloSports as our official streaming partner at our top club softball and college events,” said Andy Hansen, VP of Media and Branding. “We consider them the leader in live sport event streaming, and their presence will add tremendous value both from a streaming and content standpoint.”
Streaming more than 10,000 live competitions per year, FloSports continues to emerge as the global leader in live, in-depth, and on-demand digital coverage for passionate sports fans.
To access live and on-demand coverage of all softball and basketball games, visit FloSoftball.com or FloHoops.com to become a monthly or annual PRO subscriber. Either subscription unlocks access to premium content across the entire FloSports network. Watch the events across all screens by downloading the FloSports app on iOS, Roku, or Apple TV 4.
FloSports, the innovator in live digital sports and original content, partners with event rights holders, governing bodies, and other media companies to unlock a world of sports coverage that true fans have been waiting for. Through live streaming of premier events, original video programming, and weekly studio shows, FloSports is growing the sports, the events, the athletes, and the fans. Current verticals under the FloSports header include Softball, Basketball, MMA, Football, Wrestling, Track, Gymnastics, Hockey, and more.
About Triple Crown Sports
Based in Fort Collins, CO., Triple Crown Sports has been producing college and youth events for more than 35 years. TCS runs both the preseason and postseason WNIT basketball events and produces the men’s and women’s Cancun Challenge tournaments in November. Triple Crown is also powering “WNIT” concept events in D-I softball (NISC) and volleyball (NIVC), with those two events debuting in 2017. TCS youth fastpitch tournaments (including the 900-team Sparkler/Fireworks event) draw the nation’s finest club programs, and hundreds of college coaches attend TCS events for recruiting purposes.
On a softball field, there’s a lot that can happen – accurate pitches, solid hits, speeding fielders all playing out backed by a soundtrack of claps and hoots, with the loudest of cheers and the quietest of strategy-centric whispers filling the gaps.
That’s key, really, the space a softball field makes available for anyone who wants to cross the lines. And not only can young women simply take pleasure in playing a game, but they can find encouragement to seize an opening in their own lives.
When it’s really clicking for the Oregon Blaze fastpitch program, based near Portland, the sport of softball is more than an arena for breaking a sweat. From its start in Beaverton nearly 30 years ago, when Jim Marron and Lynn Buerer held a tryout and got blitzed by nearly three dozen 8-year-olds showing up, to today’s high-achieving crew of about 12-15 squads depending on the season, the Blaze wanted to solve problems and be a force for physical and personal development.
“In 1989 my daughter was born; she played T-Ball at age 6, and at age 7, Lynn Buerer and I decided it was time to even the playing field with softball. We called ourselves the Angels the first year; 35 kids showed for the first tryout,” Marron said. “We thought, we can’t leave all these kids out here and we wanted to give them an opportunity to play this great game. Next year, we formed the Beaverton Blaze, two teams, 10A and 10B. Most players were age 8 and 9; we wanted to maybe play a couple years and then be ready to function as a more competitive organization.
“The following year, 1998, we had three teams, 12A, 10A and 10B. The 10A team went 94-7 and played in the ASA National tourney in Broken Arrow, OK. We thought, if you’re playing on Saturday you did well, and we felt we did pretty well. Testing the waters like that at 10u was probably over-ambitious. Half the team was 9, a couple 8-year-olds … we had set a goal to qualify for Nationals, hell or high water. We said the more games we played, the better our situation would be. We started in late March and played into August. We were the team, people hated to see show up – it was always going to be tough to get through us.”
Mic Bowman, coach of the 18 Gold and 16 Gold feeder squad, got involved in 2000 when the softball world he saw lacked stability and focus. Sensing a huge opportunity was being frittered away for his daughters, Bowman immersed himself in the sport and relied on his enthusiasm for the game to provide what he couldn’t pull off because of experience.
“Around 2000, our Little League (softball) was having political issues, and I decided I didn’t want to be the parent who just complains, so I did something about it. I spent six months, literally, watching videos,” Bowman said. “I taught myself how to pitch, I went to pitching clinics, and I got familiar with travel ball coaches in the area … call it a six-month crash course on all things softball. When my oldest daughter was 9 or 10, I started coaching.
“The thing that has kept me going is seeing how much social pressure is being applied to young women to fit in some mold of acceptable behavior. That’s kind of pissed me off at the time. I wanted to do my best to prepare young women, not for any particular future but for the ability to choose their own future. To be a stay-at-home mom, or a corporate career person, all independent of the shape society wanted to put them in. This game gives a way to learn so many life lessons – dealing with failure, persistence, the value of hard work, teamwork, so many things – it seemed like a great opportunity. And even when my kids were done playing, it felt like the right way to give back.”
Oregon may sound like an athletic outpost, but the quality of softball players from the area continues to impress. For the Blaze, it begins with patience and a welcoming vibe in the early ages and is fortified with a desire to keep parents, players and coaches mindful of the long-term goal.
That goal might include a college scholarship, but the Blaze wouldn’t want to focus exclusively on that result.
“I started with younger teams, 10u and the like, and we didn’t travel, we stayed in the region. Fastpitch is a very big sport here,” said Blaze director James Lambert. “We host the Little League Softball World Series. We get a berth for hosting, and it’s a starting point for younger girls and helping us with numbers, and that’s big because there is pressure coming from soccer and lacrosse. The families that like it and want more tend to come over to the Blaze.”
“At the time, the softball wasn’t that great as a whole. We did identify that there were good players (in multiple leagues),” Marron said. “We wanted a structure so those players could get together and play in an advanced environment, and so we had to travel and find good teams to play. It got to a point where we could see other good softball teams in the area, as they had seen it could work. We were all about skill development and playing the game well – what teamwork means, and how to be strong in the mental part of the game. I spent 11 years going to an Arizona camp for skills and training insight. We valued forming good teams that got along, minimizing the drama.”
With that foundation, the Blaze moved ahead and started to address the gap that existed in terms of experience and game savvy with competitors from softball hotbeds like California, Texas and the Southeast. Some of those matchups didn’t end up well in the younger age groups (that’s not a shock, given the state might get four months of solid sunshine a year), but as players got older, the differences at 16u and 18u began to shrink.
In fact, that’s one reason why the Blaze is enthused about recent changes in college recruiting, because an Oregon player may look a bit green and unrefined at age 12 or 14. Another dose of competition and seasoning is exactly what the talent in Oregon thrive upon.
And in that thriving, the deeper usefulness of the sport can emerge.
“With competitiveness and things like that … it’s not the goal, but a means to achieve the goal. The ability to have enough confidence in yourself that no matter how many times somebody has told you what you have to do, you can figure out the right thing and then do it,” Bowman said. “The willingness to put in the work, to sacrifice, to see that if I spend three nights a week in the gym during January, it pays off in April and May … doing the grunt work to be ready for the glory. It’s a lesson that applies for everyone.
“To understand what it takes to be a softball coach, there’s no other sport remotely close, other than baseball, that has this visibility and focus on failure. You miss a shot in basketball, you try to get a rebound, but you’re part of 10 people continuously moving. In the batter’s box, everyone is looking at you, and success and failure is singular to you as an individual. If you let it beat you, if you let the fear of failure beat you, then you’re in trouble. I see a direct tie in how much you are willing to believe and commit to your instincts and the success you have, and it’s very immediate. There’s clarity not about your ability, but your ability to fight back.”
The modern age of softball is not short on challenges to the aspirations of the Blaze – some years, that aforementioned hunger for scholarships can wobble a team’s focus, and there are parents who lack that certain “off” switch when it comes to behavior in the stands.
But the positive results and meaningful changes within the players are much more plentiful and memorable.
“Every collection of players is different. We’ve had times with a group of players that was so focused on the recruiting side of things that is was very difficult to get any cohesion … those are years where we might win a lot of games, but it’s still very frustrating,” Bowman added. “Or we may have a group that plays together wonderfully as a team, and they don’t win as much because they are not as talented. It’s true – my motivation is to teach the kids, to allow them to express their passion for the game at the highest level they possibly can.
“We do our absolute best to aid the kids. Our approach to recruiting is a little different – we don’t come in and say we’ll get you a scholarship. We say, you’ll get the scholarship, and we are here to help and train. We communicate with college coaches, and I get behind the backstop and talk to college coaches, but it’s on behalf of the kids. The responsibility for recruiting is on the players, while the coaching staff facilitates and helps with connections.”
Up in the corner of the country, the Oregon Blaze knows the right angle to take.
from left, Charlie Pikas, Jaime Jimenez and TC event director Krista Crawford
The All-American Sports Academy sprang to life through the vision of fastpitch coaching icon Debbie Nelson, who founded the Northern California enterprise 21 years ago. The past 14 years have seen the AASA start and sustain travel teams in softball, showing plenty of muscle in tournament settings and deepening the pool of talented players filling college rosters – the 18 Gold squad is typically one of the strongest rosters in the country (and will play in our Sparkler/Fireworks tournament in 2019). AASA was the fastpitch home of Washington All-American and Team USA member Ali Aguilar.
AASA officials/coaches Jaime Jimenez and Charlie Pikas made the trip to Triple Crown’s offices in mid-September and stopped to share some thoughts and perspectives on their club and the shape of the sport.
What do you want to make sure parents and players understand about AASA before they suit up for you?
JJ: In the very beginning, our priorities were to put kids in college, to give them an opportunity to further their education and play. That was always a starting point that led us to where we are now. We’ve got quite a few college players in our alumni list now, which is pretty cool.
CP: We ask parents to support their athletes. It’s not easy playing at the level we try to have our teams play at, so there’s a lot of support needed, most obviously the financial (aspect) and the time. But it’s the mental support, and the physical support of a hug after the tournament. We want them to compete at a high level, and the parents need to get that going in. It’s going to take time away from family vacations in the summer, but your window to be on the journey with these kids is not very long. In the moment, it might seem like you’re giving up a lot, but then you look back and it’s done.
The game has evolved so much in the 14 years you all have played travel ball; what jumps out the most about the players in that time?
JJ: You’re seeing kids who are in way better shape; they seek out personal trainers, hitting coaches and pitching coaches, more than they did back then. The level of play is so much better with kids starting younger, and we also like the fact they play other sports to be well-rounded. You are a better softball player when you play basketball or field hockey or whatever. But really, the training out there has been a big difference maker in our sport. There aren’t any barriers.
CP: It’s what they are capable of … when I started coaching 20 years ago, it felt like fine china, and you didn’t want to break the kids. “Let the girls play, and it’s so cute to watch them…” now, it’s more exciting for me to watch a softball game than a baseball game. What these kids are able to do by allowing them to go out and push themselves and play at that level, it’s exciting. The game is taking off at a great rate, and we hope it continues like that.
How do you approach the question of trying to win, while also making sure you are developing players properly?
JJ: A lot of my younger teams will hear me say, I’m not that concerned about you winning games. What I’m concerned about is the development; when the winning time comes, usually around when they are 14s or 16s, winning helps the health of the franchise. But you still want to produce terrific kids. It’s a relief you see on the faces of the coaches for our younger kids when I say I’m not worried about you winning. What I want is for them to grow, so when they go to the next age group they can compete, and they’ll keep competing. Winning will come after all the hard work we all put in. It’s a recipe that will work if you trust it and follow it.
CP: “Trust the process” is the big catch-phrase right now, but you really have to get parents to understand what your team is, what level you are at and where you’re trying to go, and that they need to be realistic. You lay out that road map in the beginning, and keep that open line of communication going along the way, they can get through the tough times. It’s those coaches who have sole emphasis on winning and you see them get beat down after two or three tough weekends in a row … it starts to affect the team, and then you get parents who are frustrated. So you help the parents along the way, not just the kids, so they all can weather the storm. If a player has a slump in a tournament, it’s not like we are going to give up on that kid, so if we have a tournament where things don’t go well, it’s the same thing.
What are some of the goals for AASA heading into the 2019 campaign?
JJ: The first thing that’s got us excited is having a 10u team in Seattle; the second part is, I’m completely bought into our youth teams right now. We have some strong young teams, and that’s the future for us at a high-level way. Our older teams are always competing, but we’ve always struggled in the younger ages and I think we’ve cleared that hurdle and will really surprise some people.
CP: There’s some transition at the 18 Gold level where we’re seeing some new faces. There’s stuff to be excited about at every level, with some different expectations and excitement levels.
One reason fastpitch teams came running to the start of the Triple Crown Super 72 NIT hinged on what was waiting at the finish line.
This past weekend’s event in Chicago offered a paid berth to the winners of each age group into TCS’ 2019 Fourth of July championships in Colorado – the 14u champ getting a ticket punched for Sparkler Juniors, while the 16u and 18u champions were added to the Fireworks roster.
Not for the first time in a tough Triple Crown event, the Iowa Premier had an outstanding run in the brackets, claiming the 14u and 16u titles. And in the 18u division, the Chicago Cheetahs were the last team standing.
14u – The Iowa Premier were overpowering on offense, posting wins of 13-5 and 10-6 to reach the semifinals in Sunday’s bracket action. The Premier then eased past the Indiana Gators, 8-0, before prevailing in the final with a 11-7 win over the Beverly Bandits Premier Futures. That Futures team had defeated Iowa Premier earlier in Saturday’s box bracket play, 3-0.
16u – This Iowa Premier team made its way through the opposition more on defense and the ability to stay cool when things got tight on the scoreboard. On Sunday, a 4-3 victory over Batbusters KB was followed with a 4-3 win versus the Lemont Rockers, setting up a championship showdown with the New Lenox Lightning. The Premier had the answer, with another 4-3 victory.
18u – The Chicago Cheetahs scored 17 runs and gave up one in two wins in the box bracket; they followed up with 9-0 and 11-0 victories to reach the semifinals in the championship bracket. Sunday saw the Cheetahs top Iowa Premier, 8-4, and then in the final the Cheetahs cranked up the offense again, topping the New Lenox Lightning, 10-7.
US Club Rankings, widely appreciated as the most valid and inclusive rankings platform in the sport, is assembled by using tournament finishes from all governing bodies, polls of coaches and college placement information. Here's a look at the 18u Top 10; you can see the entire breakdown HERE:
1) East Cobb Bullets – Schnute – Coach Greg Schnute
Congratulations to the EC Bullets and Greg Schnute for grabbing the US Club Rankings No. 1 spot for the 2018 FINAL National Rankings at 18 & Under! This legacy program has been a force for 22 years, steadily climbing the rankings and have reached the pinnacle from their efforts this season.
The EC Bullets have been making themselves known nationally since we began the US Club Rankings in 2012. They were often seen in the Top 10 during the Colorado 4th of July IDT event as well as PGF, the JO Cup and TC/USA Nationals. In 2016 they boasted their first “National Title” at the JO Cup in Southern California, then again hoisted a championship trophy at the 2018 TC/USA Nationals – that all led to a first place National Points System ranking, which is based upon on-field performance.
With a reputation for excellence on the field in the Southeast, the EC Bullets class of 2018 will be making an impact populating teams in the SEC and ACC conferences on rosters such as Florida, University of South Carolina and Duke. The 2019 class that will anchor the team will follow in the same fashion with commits to Mississippi State, Alabama, Tennessee, Notre Dame and national champion Florida State. This team will be casting a shadow in championship brackets for years to come.
2) Orange County Batbusters – Coach Mike Stith
The Orange County Batbusters have been around for over 30 years and is a recognized name across the nation. Gary Haning, founder of the organization, made a great choice in asking Mike Stith to carry on the legacy of the organization’s flagship team.
The Batbusters are no strangers to the top of the podium and took home the IDT Championship in 2018 and 2nd place at the PGF National Tournament. Former OC Batbusters can be seen throughout the country on college rosters such as Oklahoma, Arizona, Oregon, Washington and all the way to the East Coast at Florida. There is no shortage in talent in years to come as the 2020 and 2021 class is just as strong as the seniors leading the team next season. With a tradition so rich the OC Batbusters name will stay recognizable and even feared in 2019 and beyond.
3) So Cal Athletics – Coach Bruce Richardson
The So Cal Athletics – Richardson is rarely found outside the Top 5 in any national tournament; that has been reflected in the US Club Rankings as they were the No. 1 team in 2017 before dropping slightly in 2018. Since 2010 the So Cal Athletics have taken home the national title for PGF a record five times and continue to be a force when it counts.
You can see 2018 grads on rosters nationwide (Florida Gulf Coast, North Dakota State, Bryant University, Bucknell, West Point and UCLA), proving that teams can assemble great talent with chemistry and still get it done on the field even though they are not all power conference players. The class on deck in 2019 will lead their last summer before heading to Cal, LSU, Arizona State, Oregon State, Stanford and Notre Dame to continue their careers. There is no doubt the legacy as a formidable opponent will continue wherever they go.
4) Corona Angels – Coach Marty Tyson
Ever present in the Top 10 are the Corona Angels – Tyson. Being considered the youngster organization compared to other So Cal staples, they have stayed in the hunt after being named the Top Team in 2015 and are still a force nationally. A 9th place finish at the IDT and 3rd at the PGF National tournament keeps them towards the top of the competitive field of teams.
Check out the big conferences all over the country to see Angels on the field, particularly at Louisville, Nebraska, Duke, Ohio State, Stanford, Wisconsin, Washington and UCLA. With the feeder teams, Marty Tyson will continue to see success on the field and compete for national titles every year.
5) Texas Bombers Gold – Coach Scott Smith
You can always find the Texas Bombers at the ballpark, usually toward the conclusion in the Top 25, and also from their unmistakable uniforms honoring the United States military. The Bombers try to embody a militaristic precision on the field and play the game with talent and respect. Their finishes at the Fireworks Power Pools (fifth) and TC/USA Nationals (second) took them from No. 8 last year to No. 5 in the blink of an eye.
The Bombers players have populated college rosters in and outside of Texas including Texas A&M, LSU, University of Houston, Auburn, Harvard, Northwestern and national champion Florida State. The 2019 and beyond grads are hoping to continue the tradition and the pursuit for the top spot in the nation before embarking on a college career.
6) Texas Glory – Coach Kevin Shelton
Another organization from the Lone Star State, the Texas Glory has been a fixture in the Top 10 and has for the second year in a row landed at No. 6. Each year, dominant finishes in the Fireworks Power Pool and a 2018 USA Elite Select title have led to their continued success.
Texas Glory players are landing on college rosters wherever you look. From Nebraska, Oklahoma, Louisiana Lafayette, LSU, Texas A&M to North Texas, Northwestern State and Harding, Glory players are impacting the rosters while bringing their winning tradition and hard work with them. They will continue to be a contender at a national level down the road.
7) Aces Express – Coach Dave McCorkle
With an organizational motto of “Attitude and Effort” it’s no wonder the Aces Express teams have been on the rise. With a club best 3rd place finish in the Fireworks Power Pools and another 3rd place finish in the TC/USA Nationals, Dave McCorkle has a Texas program worth watching. Making the jump from No. 9 to No. 7 embodies the word effort, and the respect for the game shows attitude is in fact controllable.
The 2019 roster is hungry to keep improving their standing, and most of them are finding homes in Texas for their college career. Texas A&M, Corpus Christi, Stephen F Austin and UT San Antonio to name a few will be gaining players who know what it is to work hard to help programs grow. “Attitude and Effort” remains not only a team motto but a statement worthy of future champions.
8) Georgia Impact Premier – Coach Patrick Lewis
New to the Top 10, the Georgia Impact Premier entered with a BANG, taking 2nd place at the IDT then following it up with a PGF Premier National title after taking 5th in the TC/USA Nationals in 2018. This team has put in the work in the past few years to get where they are today. With a great system of teams in the Georgia Impact organization, they have been able to put their stamp with a national powerhouse.
A few of the Patrick Lewis’ players will be gracing the ranks of the SEC including Alabama and LSU; most will stay in the Southeast to contribute to other college’s success like Georgia State, Kennesaw State, East Tennessee and Florida Gulf Coast. The 2019 class will be branching out even further with players headed to Michigan, Utah, Colorado State and some again staying closer to home to play at Georgia, Tennessee, Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern. This may be the first time they broke into the Top 10, but with their winning tradition rolling, it will not be the last.
9) Firecrackers Brashear – Coach Sean Brashear
The Firecrackers name is no stranger to the Top 10, but Sean Brashear has blazed a trail to the No. 9 spot in spectacular fashion. Blowing through the competition at the Fireworks Power Pool (walking away with a championship) and making a run finishing 5th at PGF this team was just plain fun to watch. With what seems like a never-ending bench, the pitching staff was able to stay fresh and crisp during long events, and the hitters are relentless from top to bottom giving opponents no time to breathe. That is why the team made a huge jump from No. 23, leaving a lot of teams in the wake of their success.
Watch for the 2018 grads from Firecrackers Brashear at Fullerton and Stanford and the 2019 class close behind at Fullerton, Loyola Marymount, Illinois, Tennessee, CSUSN and Purdue. This up-and-coming team will be putting out more talent to college rosters in the future since Sean is grooming 16U, 14U and 12U teams with the same winning attitude.
10) Scrap Yard Internationals – Coaches Todd Leach and Connie May
It is not often teams combine to become stronger, but that is exactly what happened when Sudden Impact Gold and the Scrap Yard Dawgs merged to form the Scrap Yard Internationals for the 2018 season. Each team on its own was Top-20 level, but when they combined the talent of the players and coaching, it rattled the rankings. The team made a run at the Fireworks in the Power Pools for a 9th place finish then took home 3rd at the TC/USA Nationals to help grab a spot in our Top 10.
Their future is looking just as bright with players in the 2019, 2020 classes heading to Texas A&M, UT – Arlington, Seton Hall, Wisconsin, Texas, Nebraska, Louisiana Lafayette, LSU and Baylor. This Houston-based united front has a lot to look forward to with two organizations to feed the Scrap Yard Internationals team for a great run toward the top in the coming years.
In the heart of the nation, all the ingredients are available to grow remarkable, durable products. You just have to know the environment that provides so much also throws up challenges.
Turns out the proper care and feeding of softball players also produces spectacular results in the Midwest, and there’s no better example than the one found with the Iowa Premier program, based in Des Moines but capable of providing bracket-busting ripple effects from coast to coast. Founded by Greg Dickel in early 2014, Iowa Premier now consists of nine teams (12u-18u) and is a flat-out talent pipeline to college fastpitch programs.
Dickel’s daytime task for 27 years has been as a full-time police officer in Des Moines; he played baseball in high school and junior college and took interest in fastpitch when his daughter Paige took up the sport as a 7-year-old. Eventually, Dickel became co-director of another Iowa academy and after a few years decided to put his own vision on the field. Presented with that opportunity, he’s been determined to give Iowa’s best their own chances to break new ground.
“It’s been a definite mission to build an organization that gave best players in Iowa a national stage, together on the same teams, which would create opportunities to be seen by college coaches for potential scholarships,” said Dickel, whose teams have a long list of victories in ASA, PGF and Triple Crown championship events. “Our mission has always been to take the very talented Iowa-based player and help showcase their skills and play with the other top players. We now have 20 kids from Illinois who play with this club, five from South Dakota who have traveled in, two from Minnesota and Missouri, and all four corners of Iowa.
“That part of the mission is geared around the high-level player, building and continuing to stress it, and get them on great teams with great coaches on a national stage. Midwestern values – those things that everyone talks about – well, more than 50 percent of the players at Iowa Premier are from rural Iowa and farm towns. It gives us a good base of high-character athletes with high work ethic upbringing, and that can many times translate to the softball field. We know the high level of athletes from this area, and we can give them the mechanism and machine to showcase their skills like other teams get to from other places like California and Texas and Florida.”
With that underlying priority, it’s clear Iowa Premier wants to groom standout student-athletes, but it’s another thing to actually do it. The proof resides in the laundry list of college signings and the presence of terrific talents, including pitcher Kaitlyn Menz (a sophomore in Wisconsin who was an all-Big Ten second team selection) and Kendyl Lindaman, who you can expect to see on Team USA rosters one day after her freshman season at Minnesota – she was the Big Ten freshman and player of the year and named a first-team choice for the NFCA All-American team.
“Greg was tough on me as a coach, especially as an 11-year-old, but that’s what needed. I needed someone to push me to be the best player I could be,” Lindaman said. “He saw a lot in me that other people didn’t, and I respect him so much for doing that for me. It was getting that push; that’s what he gave me.
“For us, it was fun. Teams would overlook us, and we could even hear teams saying, ‘Why is there an Iowa team here? They’re not good. They should just go home.’ It was fun going out there and playing our game. We were showing that good players come out of Iowa. We had nothing to lose, they had everything to lose, and that was a great rush to go out and even win a tournament.”
The Iowa Premier has had to tackle stellar competition while facing one very unique uphill obstacle, with the state’s high school season running from early May through July and thus playing out in direct conflict with the typical club softball slate of events. It’s a monster topic on its own, but coping with the scheduling challenges just makes success on a national stage all the sweeter for the Premier.
“It’s very rewarding; the biggest reward for the organization and the people involved is we had to go out and earn our stake. Not a whole lot of people gave us respect early on,” Dickel said. “My reputation as a coach allowed us to get some invitations to see what this Iowa Premier thing was all about, as the IClub teams (Dickel’s previous organization) had some success. I had developed some relationships; you need to know some people to get started, and we did well. Things started to build ... the PGF was a big hurdle, and our 2015 18 platinum team lost in the final.
“In 2016, the big goal was to get out there and make something happen. We felt we belonged there, gave up just one run entire tournament, and won the 18’s title game – there were 17 D-I commits in that game. Our other age divisions were doing well – in 2016 we took third in the PGF 16u Platinum Nationals. In 2017, we earned bids in 14, 16 and 18 PGF Premier Nationals -- that’s a mark of where we are at as a program.”
Mark Mulvaney, owner at president of Scout Softball (a scouting agency that collects film and data, and is designed to easily connect college coaches and athletes) has long been impressed with the brand of athlete Dickel uncovers in the nation’s breadbasket.
“We ran a showcase in St. Louis that drew six or seven kids from IClub, who turned out to be a bunch of future college players. Greg saw the need for an established organization dedicated to travel ball, and might have gone against the grain with how summer ball works in Iowa,” Mulvaney said. “He saw the need for it full time. Got his team with Iowa Premier, and soon he had all D-I kids, not just four or five. We made effort to go to the Midwest, and we saw great kids who knew they were being ignored. These are 5-foot-8 to 5-foot-11 girls hitting it out of the park. The opportunity began to present itself, and they took advantage.
“Every year we went, the kids got better thanks to the full-time approach of guys like Greg and Bill Conroy (of the Beverly Bandits). They also had indoor facilities and could play more than they used to. One thing that jumped out was, it seemed like kids would develop new pitches in a year’s time, and you can only do that when you are working on your craft. These were all people invested in softball.”
There’s a dollar investment in that conversation, but it’s probably more relevant how Iowa Premier coaches apply the resources of time and attention. Coach Kevin Stephens joined the staff after long conversations with Dickel about how a program can best serve the player and creates a roster of competitive but conscientious teammates.
“You can talk about talent and drive, but you got to have someone who is accountable … you start with that and the rest comes more easily,” said Stephens, the 16u Gold coach for Iowa Premier. “And it goes both ways – if a kid makes a great effort and still makes a mistake, don’t be afraid as a coach to take a little of that blame. You won’t be able to teach (real) accountability if it’s always their fault and never yours. I am not afraid to walk over to that huddle and say, ‘I blew that one. Pick me up here.’
“You take a kid who’s been maybe pushed away, and you give them an opportunity, you create something golden. There’s a bond, and a relationship and you open that door – here’s your shot, and what will you do with it? I’ve worked with a lot of people whose softball personality is one way and their (other) personality are like two different people. Greg is the same guy; like me he can be brutally honest, but that also eliminates all the speculation about things … I know he’s put his whole heart and mindset into this, and how he balances that (with being a policeman), I have no idea. He’s created an environment where kids not only get better at athletics, but get a better life.”
Dickel certainly wishes the whole high-school/club season conflict could be worked out, but after multiple petitions and conversations, he’s not getting his hopes up. It’s not unusual for Iowa Premier players to be facing off against each other in a state final, only to be shoulder to shoulder in California for a big club tournament.
“All summer, I was never with anyone from my travel team, and I’m normally playing against them in high school,” Lindaman said. “So that’s tough, never practicing together. Teams across the country have that advantage over us. We’d go to the PGF event in Huntington Beach and sometimes never have a practice, because we were all at different points during the high school season. Somehow it worked out.”
“Iowa kids are playing in a different competitive arena, because it’s the only state playing high school softball in the summer. My 18u team, I have kids playing a high school championship game on a Friday, then get on a plane at 6-7 the following morning to Huntington Beach, and then play at 7 p.m.,” Dickel added. “They will not have practiced together since early spring – it’s a testament to the talent level of the kids, that they can come together like that without much practice and perform on a national stage.”