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.”