By Kyle Koso
Since the growing season in Alaska is a bit of a challenge, it’s smart to assemble every ingredient possible if you want something to spring to life.
Even though the seeds for youth softball were planted in the state a couple of decades ago, it’s another thing entirely for a sport to take root and mature in ways that lead to things like excellence in multiple age groups and college opportunities. But the softball scene in Alaska mimics the land itself – rugged and rich with resources.
Evidence of that was seen in August of 2021 at Triple Crown’s Great Alaska Showcase, held just northwest of Anchorage at Loretta French Fields, which drew 150 athletes for three days of skill building while putting them in front of college coaches from 15 programs looking to connect with Alaska’s talent base. Year 1 of the showcase was a quieter affair thanks to COVID restrictions in 2020, but the state’s club and high school programs were ready to dive into the opportunity this time around.
They had a lot of help from multiple supporters – everything from field improvements to fundraising to feeding and lodging college coaches had to be tackled by local softball fans. The hours of work piled up, but so did the sense of excitement that Alaska softball could create a moment that allowed each player’s talent to shine.
“This has been a dream of mine for 20 years; it is gratifying to see so many softball players able to experience a showcase,” said Carl Waters, one of the founders of the Arctic Heat club program, which is essentially Ground Zero for softball in the state. “By holding the showcase in Alaska, a lot of players who would never have the opportunity to participate in a Triple Crown event in the lower 48 were able to experience it here. It did take months of planning and coordination to figure out what could be provided, how it was going to be provided and to have someone plan and execute the lunches and the meals.
“A great deal of credit goes to our business partners: Tudor Bing, USA Softball, Unite Here Local #878 who provided affordable lodging, Midnight Sun Rentals who provided the vehicles, Eagle River Parks and Recreation, Coca Cola who provided the drinks, and the Elevation and Krush softball teams who provided pizza on the last day and countless hours of meal prep and cooking.”
Once the groundwork for the Great Alaska Showcase came together, it became essential to prepare the grounds, as well. The Loretta French complex had been around since the early 2010’s, and it had some amusing backstory (businesses could sponsor foul balls, where their names were announced whenever a ball was hit out of play), but it needed a fair bit of attention if it was going to keep up with the level of athletic improvement.
“By entering into a private/public partnership with Eagle River Parks and Rec, we started refurbishing the fields in 2020. This was a collaborative effort by the Eagle River Baseball, Eagle River Softball, Chugiak Softball and Arctic Heat club programs,” said Dan Traxinger, a coach and parent with the Arctic Heat. “Bill Lierman represented the baseball programs and myself from the softball programs to improve the fields for the youth programs and community. Four fields have been refurbished and over 500 hours of volunteer time was put into building, maintaining and hosting softball functions in 2021 alone.
“For the first time in our history, the two local high schools (Eagle River and Chugiak) were able to host their home softball high school games at Loretta French and it offers practice facilities as well. In addition, we hosted the 2nd annual Birchwood Jamboree of which 15 teams from around Alaska attended. The Jamboree was sponsored by local business to keep the cost down for all teams attending, which allowed teams to attend and our underrepresented programs to afford the event.”
College coaches are well-known for going through just about anything to get face-to-face with potential roster fits, and a solid group of recruiters took advantage of all this preliminary work to make the journey up north and attend the showcase. With the local community throwing its energy into making a showcase even possible, and the foundation of player talent continuing to grow, colleges are going to be warming up to the topic of a trip up North.
“Just because they are from Alaska, an area more known for dogsledding than softball, players need to understand that it is the heart and effort that they put in, is what will determine what they get out of it,” said Eric Buss, softball head coach at Olympic College in Bremerton, WA. “One of the best catchers I have had on my teams came from Alaska. So, the talent is there, they just need to let others see that and help nurture their skills into an opportunity.
“I can say hands down the folks that promoted, set up the facility, provided food and drinks, attended daily and ensured this was a success are some of the most passionate, dedicated, and awesome people I have met in a long time. Seeing the desire in them to do what it takes to put on such a great event there in Alaska was amazing. The fields were in great condition, and based on what we were told on what they have been doing for months to get them that way is nothing short of true love for the kids and wanting them to have the best that they can.”
“We were pleased that Triple Crown was asked to get involved in drawing more attention to the player base in Alaska. Of course, we ended up benefiting enormously, as working with the softball community has been so satisfying,” said Stephanie Klaviter, event coordinator at TCS. “There’s a lot more that can be accomplished, as the athletes, coaches and supporters within softball show no shortage of enthusiasm.”
The quest continues to make the Great Alaska Showcase even more valuable to players and colleges; reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.