By Sergio Santistevan
In 2000, the Arctic Heat fastpitch organization was founded out of Eagle River, Alaska – but the passion for softball started long before.
The Arctic Heat can be considered a family affair, with husband and wife Carl and Michele Waters at the head of the program. The Waters are the founders of the program and the current Board of Directors. Their daughters, Courtney Waters and Andrea Canfield, are former players and current coaches of the Heat.
The strong softball blood can be tied to Michele’s mother, Lauretta Williams. In the first case of the softball family being doubted, Williams lived in Japan at a time when baseball wasn’t popular for women, so she went against the status quo and played with the men.
As a high school student, Michele started to become consumed and fall in love with the game herself while watching her mother.
“I played in high school and actually started coaching my senior year in high school. I coached a team with my mom,” Michele said. “My mother taught me when I was younger (that) because I’m not a very big woman, if you learn to play everywhere and learn to hit everywhere, you become more valuable than the girl that can hit to the fence.”
Williams’ advice to her daughter has translated to the Arctic Heat’s coaching philosophy. In practice, Heat players don’t have positions, because you never know when a player is going to be needed elsewhere. For example, if a college coach wants to see the shortstop play some first base, now she needs to be ready for that position and someone else needs to be ready to take her spot.
“All of our girls move around. All our infielders move around the infield. All our outfield moves around the outfield, and they switch back and forth. Our catcher can play third, second or center. Our pitchers all play third, first or second. Our second basemen can play outfield and catches,” Michele said. “We make sure that when a coach comes up and says we want to see a girl in a position, our team transitions and moves around seamlessly.”
Michele still plays softball today and follows the same advice from her mother. She is a utility player for her Huntsman World Senior Games team, where they have won a gold medal three out of the past four seasons.
When she isn’t playing softball, Michele and Carl stay busy with Arctic Heat, where their roles have slightly changed since 2000. Currently, Michele is the team manager for the 18u team, while Carl is president and recruiting liaison. His game-day role consists of never entering the dugout and solely interacting with college coaches. Courtney is currently the head coach of the 18u team, and Andrea helps with the teams as well.
Along with assistance from five other coaches, the Arctic Heat program is all in on the mission of getting girls scholarships, a mission that formed during a small youth fastpitch tournament over two decades ago. Before the Arctic Heat became established and were under a different name, a fellow opponent in an Oregon tournament poked fun at the team from Alaska.
“They kind of laughed at us and said, ‘You guys from Alaska can’t play softball, you guys can’t get scholarships,’” Michele said. “It kind of ticked us off. We were like ‘wait a minute, we got talent in Alaska’ and we beat that team.”
After somebody asked Carl and Michele to start the Arctic Heat, they finally did when Courtney was in eighth grade. However, Carl and Michele didn’t fully dive into the Heat just yet because they were still coaching another team at the time, Northern Impact. Once all the girls graduated from the Northern Impact, the team slowly fell apart and all the girls turned to Arctic Heat.
The Heat has evolved into a top-notch, non-profit organization whose sole focus is to promote softball with the highlight of getting girls scholarships. Since their creation, over 100 Arctic Heat players, including Courtney and Andrea, have earned college scholarships.
With the Arctic Heat focused with such determination about putting athletes into college, they don’t boast about their on-field accomplishments. On their website, it’s difficult to find any championship accolades, but it’s easy to find players who have earned scholarships and educational resources. Each coach plays an integral role in making those scholarship dreams come true, on the diamond or in the classroom. As an example, one of the coaches on staff does tutoring for the kids in her spare time, while another handles ACT prep.
Before heading to tournaments, Heat coaches will check grades from players to make sure that hurdle isn’t between them and college coaches.
“On our team, it’s mandatory that you carry at least a 3.0 GPA. It’s required to try and maintain a 3.2,” Michele said. “We’ve had girls maintained 4.0’s throughout school … we really want these girls to go to college. We really want them to succeed. We prepare them athletically, but we also let them know you’re a student first.”
On top of education and softball, all Arctic Heat players are required to do some form of charity work. For Mother’s Day this year, all Heat players will serve breakfast for local mothers at one of the supporters’ businesses.
Despite scholarships and success on the diamond, today’s Arctic Heat still experience many of the same struggles that early Alaska fastpitch teams faced.
“We come to these tournaments and we’ll play and there are times when teams beat us one to two, one to zero, three to zero, and they’re California, Texas, Arizona and Oregon teams,” Michele said. “One of the things I would really like these teams to know is our high school season is 26 games and that includes state, so if you don’t make it to state you only have 23 games. By the time we get to the first tournament, we have only played five games together.
“The teams that we play that only beat us by one or two typically have played 50 to 90 games by the time they see us … some of them are gracious about it, while some are a little arrogant.”
Through the years, numerous college programs have noticed the talent but lack of exposure in Alaska, so Carl flirted with the idea of highlighting Alaskan players to colleges in an event. As a result, Triple Crown Sports created The Great Alaska Showcase in 2019 (set for Aug. 4-6 this year in Anchorage). This event is one of the most successful recruiting camps for all fastpitch players in Alaska, as it brings together college coaches and players throughout the weekend.
“It’s easier for us to sponsor eight, nine or 10 coaches and Triple Crown to come up here than it is to send these girls to tournaments,” Michele said. “It also gives those girls that aren’t on a competitive team or don’t have the funds to travel to be seen.”
If things don’t go great on the field, the Heat coaches don’t let their players hang their heads, because they take pride in the group. They know other teams have more resources and get to play in more tournaments together.
As a unit, the Arctic Heat operate seamlessly despite the lack of playing time together because the coaches stress the basics. In October, the coaches make all players start back at the square one, from how to field and hit. The Arctic Heat makes up for the lost time by making sure every player is individually prepared.
“The girls need to work hard, play fair and everything else will come together,” Michele said. “You can’t be successful unless you work.”