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.