Pick a fastpitch strategy with a bit of nuance – ways to defend against the bunt, for example – and the Internet will shower you with dozens of links and options.
But those theories barely came at a trickle when John Corn first got serious about coaching the sport nearly 20 years ago. And while a lack of sophisticated thinking was evident in softball scene, even more incriminating was the average coach’s approach with the athlete. As Corn began to assemble a foundation for his own club, which became the Lady Lightning program out of North Carolina, it was on that last short-sighted issue that he felt needed some laser-guided attention.
“When I first got into it, the way they were teaching the girls to play was very elementary. It was ‘just catch the ball and throw everything to first,’ and I felt like the girls had a capacity to play the game at a higher speed,” said Corn, who coaches the 18u Gold Lady Lightning squad that has firmly established itself in the Triple Crown top 25 rankings over several years. “There just wasn’t anybody teaching that. It was like we were coddling the girls, and on the boys side with baseball, we were always challenging them to be better, move faster, do things harder.
“My approach was, girls should be able to do the same things as close as they possibly can, with the skill set they have. Why not teach them and see if they can? You don’t know if you don’t try. I took my limited background in baseball (one year of college) and brought more of a baseball philosophy to a girls sport when I was asked to get involved.”
Shane Sherlund, another coach for the 18’s, remembers when his daughter caught static for pursuing opportunities within the sport. Girls sports were seen in some circles as a curiosity, and not appreciated for the avenues that opened up for accomplished athletes.
“In high school, if my daughter had to miss school during the week, the counselors didn’t understand why she needed to miss school,” Sherlund said. “The teachers would push back, saying you’ll fall behind in school, and it took a while for them to realize she was onto something. She basically had her scholarship in hand, she knew where she was going to school, and there were certain things she had to do to maintain that situation. In Texas and California, girls had a better model to work from.”
Today, the Lady Lightning rumbles through tournaments with national flagship teams in 12u, 14u, 16u and 18u, and there are more than 20 other teams under the banner that compete in their own right as well as develop players who move up when the timing is right and also work to earn scholarships. Corn began coaching in 1999 after a group of parents and players asked him to consider running a travel team, and by 2005 his eyes were on the horizon, looking for interesting matchups and ways to help his players evolve.
“Around then I was tinkering with qualifying for ASA (nationals), because no one in our area was doing it. I wanted to be the guy who was different; if there was a good tournament in Alaska, I want to go,” Corn said. “I want to know what else is out there. We failed miserably at first. In 2013, we won 21 straight games, and that was a milestone year. We went to PGF, took ninth in back-to-back (nationals). If you look at the TCS rankings, we’re in a mix of about 20 programs, and for us to be in that mix, that’s good company for a team that comes from an area with very few great players.”
The Lady Lightning does have a persistent way, however, of funneling players to some of the top NCAA programs around. Corn had the idea about eight years ago to do some dedicated team building retreats that included keynote speakers, demanding workouts and chances for players to get comfortable with each other – working on the ground floor of what a player needs to see and feel to perform in competition.
Put that kind of mentally tough athlete on a roster with others having the same approach, and you begin to grasp how the Lady Lightning make impacts on brackets around the country.
“That was one of the things I really loved about Lady Lightning; we were able to naturally come together as a team, even though we had the individual goal of getting recruited. Our chemistry and how well we got along was a big deal, how we helped each other out,” said Emily Heimberger, a junior utility player for Mississippi State who played for Corn. “We’d do bonding activities, take a trip every year where we learned more about each other, built the teamwork, and John did a great job of emphasizing that. We never had problems with selfishness; we played as one unit.
“He had high expectations, but I thought it was great. Those expectations shaped us into the well-rounded players and people we became. It can be difficult making that transition from high school ball to travel organizations, but once you figure out how it works and how demanding it is, the time you have to put in … it really pays off when the goal is to get to the next level , college ball. Before I joined the Lightning, I never considered playing ball in college. Once I joined, and got a look at how hard you have to work and how intense that level is, that’s what made me realize I wanted to play in college. I loved every minute of it.”
“With John’s team, playing against girls committed to Alabama, Georgia and all that, I got an awakening about what I’d be dealing with if I wanted to keep pursuing Division I. It wasn’t a shock; it was more exciting because I’m very competitive, and this made the sport more fun, to play with girls as competitive as I was,” said senior Calyn Adams, a senior infielder/catcher for MSU. “Playing with Lady Lightning helped me realize the fitness level I needed to reach if I wanted to play in the SEC or Division I at all. Talking with some of the seniors who had committed and doing their summer workouts, sharing with me what they had to do.
“Speaking with John about being versatile and playing multiple positions makes you more appealing to a lot of coaches – that was really helpful. Also, being a smart player (is important), and John helped me there the most, understanding the game and being able to teach younger players the game. I was a pretty good player when I joined the Lightning, and when I left I was a great player because mostly of the mental skills John, the other coaches and players helped me to refine.”
Corn has a very centered, calm perspective on the hard work he must do – keeping a fastpitch club up and running in a time where players are often tugged at from rival organizations, and where even his own athletes might be tempted to jump to other places in the chase for opportunities.
The Lady Lightning certainly aren’t hurting for unique experiences, playing in the Canada Cup this summer, and taking on the Czech Republic’s national team back in February. The coaching staff knows this is what keeps the club dynamic and interesting, and a place where the phone is always ringing as 8u and 10u teams from multiple states try to get their squads on the Lady Lightning lineup.
“There are a lot of routes for kids to go, where there are financial benefits with certain programs, and one might be a cheaper route. I’m a guy that believes, if your family doesn’t have skin in the game, then why am I working so hard to get kids to find the right college to play at?” Corn said. “It’s really easy to get a Marissa Runyon (senior at Alabama) into a college. Some families put in the blood, sweat and tears to help us help the kids; others, it doesn’t matter what you do for them, and it’s like trading cars. We do everything we can to weed out the fly-by-night players, the pickup for one year player … if I get a phone call from a coach who has a player, committed to a school, needs to move up from a smaller program, asking if I have room … maybe. I try not to make any waves.
“I don’t lose a lot of sleep about who’s coming and who’s going. My philosophy has become this … I had a parent ask me, what separates your team and your program from other teams and other programs? I said, here it is … I’m going to have a tryout, and I don’t care if you show up or not. If you don’t, someone else will be there and I’ll help that kid. It’s up to you.”
And at the other end of that process, the Lady Lighting just keep coming, using their team development recipe to build rosters that continually draw interest from colleges. The program also draws attention – when they spring an upset over more well-known clubs.
“We do not have access to the most talented players in the country. For us, it’s building team chemistry and the bonds we need to be successful when we do go out to California,” Sherlund said. “It’s making sure the girls trust each other and trust the coaches, the coaches trust the players – it’s the team concept. We also challenge the girls every time we go out, all preparing for that trip.”
“We took a lot of pride in that; we had fun with (being unknown),” Heimberger said. “We’d go to any tournament out West and take pride in being a small team from North Carolina that no one’s probably heard of, and we want to go out and make a name for ourselves, that out East we can play, too.”
“A lot of people think because a team is based out of North Carolina, they won’t be as competitive or talented as a team from Texas or California, where you can play year-round,” Adams added. “From Day 1, that was something John really focused on, being fast … he would preach you have to be just as fast, and there’s no reason you can’t be. He emphasized competing, and in my years we beat a lot of really great teams. It was a lot of fun, and that was something he focused on … not settling."
From just about every region of the country, you could hear the shouts of delight when the news hit in August that softball would return to the event menu of the Summer Olympics, starting with Tokyo in 2020.
Aside from the entertainment value fans can expect, those deeper in the sport had to be thinking about the potential boost in softball’s profile – when Team USA gets on the world stage, typically more young players pick up a mitt and look to get their hands and uniforms dirty.
That certainly was the case back in 1996, when softball made its debut in Atlanta’s Olympics. The late 90’s marked the transition away from slow-pitch in the Midwest, and nobody had a better vantage point than Donny Dreher, currently the 18u coach at Finesse Fastpitch in Michigan. Back then, his Finesse teams were seasoned slowpitch squads that did very well in national competitions and supplied colleges with future stars on a regular basis.
So it’s a “Back to the Future” moment for Dreher today; the Olympics will soon be pumping fresh blood into softball, while Dreher and the Finesse continue to attract talented athletes (just like in the slowpitching 1990s) and get them prepared to be factors at the next level.
“With softball, I remember when I first was getting into fastpitch, I could take a lawn chair and pull it up to the backstop at the University of Michigan, which was chicken wire, and watch a game. Now, it’s a sold-out stadium with ESPN there, incredible locker rooms – the game has absolutely taken off,” said Dreher, part of the braintrust that has grown Finesse to 20 teams for the upcoming travel-ball season. “I’ve got friends who aren’t even involved with baseball or softball, and they’ll turn on the (Women’s) College World Series and text me, saying this stuff is really fun to watch.
“I’m impressed and amazed where the game is going, and it continues to get better. It’s a great tool for these girls; it helps with the transition from adolescence onto adulthood; it’s been awesome. From the Finesse standpoint, I don’t know if I’m that surprised (about growth). We’ve always prided ourselves on identifying quality kids who come from quality families. Our thing is, we want to train you. Train and develop, and help you get the exposure you need. And when you get that scholarship, our job is to continue to develop you, so you are ready to compete for a starting position when you are a freshman.”
While the upper Midwest is not going to field the sheer volume of elite teams in comparison to weather-friendly places in the South and West, the Finesse method is still proving to be effective. Determination to improve and the willingness to seek out difficult games that highlight and shed light on a weakness is simply part of Dreher’s wiring as a coach and competitor.
“We are proud. It’s probably our strongest motivation; we want college coaches to look at our area and say, that’s a hotbed. If you look at the Finesse, we feed Michigan a ton of players, and we’re still trying to get the rest of the country to say, yes, we need to look at this area,” Dreher said. “Five or six years ago, Tommie Walker (former player in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and current president of Finesse) and the rest of us saw that our defense was way behind some of the better places across the country. So we developed the Tommie Walker Fielding Clubs and began teaching more of the advanced forms of defense. We feel like we’ve come a long ways, and still have a ways to go.
“We are always trying to encourage kids in our area to see that the way you get better is to go out and play great competition. If you play against just Michigan teams, you aren’t playing with the absolute best in the country. It’s hard to get better when you don’t see the best. One reason California is so good, within 50 miles, they’ve got 50 great teams. You play that competition day in and day out, you’re going to get better. My teams travel because we get better when we play great competition. We don’t have 50 (superior) teams in Michigan, much less within 50 miles, so we’ve got to go find them. Hopefully, more kids do that, more kids get better, and we start to grow.”
With all its history, Finesse Fastpitch may sound like it’s always had the attention of athletes and families, but there have been difficult times. The first wave of coaches began to find other interests after the initial wave of teams cycled through, and Walker – who had left coaching to further his education and later plug into information technology – reached out and asked if he could run the show and try to keep it afloat.
“When I came back, I found Finesse was getting ready to shut the doors. I said, this is much bigger (in meaning) than when we started, and it does a lot for a lot of kids,” said Walker, who built the Finesse website and general infrastructure, guiding the club back to stability. “To see it just walk away and lose the connection it had – I couldn’t see that. I said, let me take a swing; I played ball myself, so let me take the swing and see if we can get it to work for those kids we have, and for more to come.
“My philosophy is that the older kids, especially, have a duty to make the situation better for the kids coming up behind them. The 18’s already have pressure on them – you were granted the opportunity by your predecessors, and if you can make it better, you owe it to the other kids. I always want the kids to understand and respect what it takes to play the game. I also try to aid them; they put in the initiative, they can pay their own way. I don’t care if I had a million dollars – kids will always have to pay their way. That drives their respect for what they want to get out of sports. I tell them, the game will find a way to love you back, but it will come with work. If it’s not worth working for, it’s not worth having.”
With Finesse long since recovered from those dark days, the staff is in regular conversation about how to stay vibrant over the long haul. That means looking at possibly damaging trends within the sport – for example, over-training of athletes and the sudden burst of recruiting pressure on 14-year-olds – and doing what is needed to protect athletes and give them heartfelt advice that was gained through experience.
“The kids now are putting so much into it, their tanks are becoming empty. Once it’s empty, it’s hard to get it back. We encourage, like a lot of college coaches do, kids to be multi-sport athletes so you have a way to unplug from softball,” Dreher said. “We tell kids, you’ve got to have some downtime, recharge the battery and fill up the tank. Everybody is a little different; we have some kids who just can’t get enough. There are kids who put so much into it that by the time they get to college, there’s nothing left. That doesn’t serve anyone.”
And on the scourge of early-teen recruiting?
“It’s horrifying. I sat in on some of the D-1 caucuses, and nobody has a clue about how to slow it down,” he added. “There’s no way you can predict where a kid is going to be four or five years down the line. Nobody tells you they like it. This thing where once you verbally commit, everyone backs off … I wish they would stop doing that. If the NCAA isn’t going to change the rules, what I would say as a D-1 coach, I don’t care that a kid verballed – I’m going to recruit that kid until at least until the beginning of their junior year, and if she’s still committed, I’ll back off. It’s crazy to think that an eighth-grader would verbally commit, and then everybody else backs off. Coaches change jobs, kids change interests – they may not even be playing softball in four years. It’s horrifying, but nobody has a clue on how to slow it down.”
The Finesse program has a ton of successful recruiting stories; one of the best fresh ones involves Nicole Bauer, a pitcher who is headed to Stanford after winning two high school state titles in Michigan and being named first-team all-state three times.
The Stanford staff told Bauer they loved the idea of a kid with Midwest grit joining forces on the roster; Bauer is more than appreciative of the doors that were opened by her Finesse experience.
“When I was 16, I played in a tournament in Virginia with my team, did really well, pitched basically every game,” Bauer said. “When I got done, my coach called my mom and said ‘Nicole needs to try out for Finesse-Dreher. If she doesn’t make that team, then come back, but if you make it you’ll have so much more exposure than we can give you.’
“I love Donny, and I love that you get tough love back. It’s not just. ‘You’re so good!’ – it’s more that you need to get better. They understand we are under a lot of pressure, but we need to give it our all. They expect that, and I like that. They helped me get recruited and did everything they could to sell me to coaches, even though I was a late commit. I was very thankful for that, and very happy to stay there with Finesse. Travel did so much for me. In college, we’re going to travel all the time, and it was good to get ready for that. It was amazing, to get to see the US and still play softball. You get to experience so many things you would not otherwise, if you didn’t play softball. To get to travel and know all these girls, travel with my family – it’s cool that you can say you did that.”
Finesse Fastpitch has survived the generational changes in the sport, showing a resourceful side from the start. Founder Denny Schlimgen worked for Helen Curtis (cosmetics) in 1986 and got sponsorship support by tagging the first team with the Finesse shampoo name. Helene Curtis folded in 1996, just about when Finesse switched to fastpitch.
Dreher said the club could cash in and add another dozen teams tomorrow if they wanted to, but it’s more important to protect the brand and expand with a cautious eye. Those classic, old-school values aren’t going anywhere soon.
“A free lunch always has a late payment. If you’re not willing to drive yourself to set your own outcomes, you’ll be driven by somebody else,” Walker added. “We shouldn’t be followers. This game is very competitive; the naysayers will beat you up, or you’ll look through all that and dig down, and get the job done.”
The deeper one goes into an athletic career, the more he or she hears the merits of keeping the game fresh, and of retaining the sense of joy for sports we all had as young children.
For the Mizuno Hawks fastpitch program out of Chicago, growing more skilled and savvy under pressure is something players logically achieved by starting early. But the resume of success – more than four dozen tournament titles, multiple D-I scholarships in hand, regional respect as a powerhouse and a name appreciated in national circles – draws a lot of momentum from before the girls were teenagers. The game is fresh today because of memories still fresh about the early days on the road.
The trail leads back to 2007, when Bill Judge began looking for options as his daughter, Kendal, began to show some athletic promise. Safe to say, he wasn’t too impressed.
“I worked in high-end construction and wanted to get my daughter into some sports. I went to some of the softball games and thought, ‘This isn’t right,’” said Judge, a draftee by the Chicago Cubs whose big-league aspirations had ended a decade earlier, when he blew out his shoulder grinding through six tryouts in six days. “Still looking around, I went to an ASA state championship in Chicago and ran into my old semipro baseball coach. He told me about the Homer Hawks (the team’s original name) that were up and coming.
“I hadn’t been back to a ballfield in about 10 years. I was bummed and stepped away for a while (his injury happened at Wrigley Field). The Hawks’ (director), Dave Betcher kept calling about Kendal, but unbeknownst to me, they wound up suckering me into coaching. It was looking at something foreign, since it’s a different game than baseball – I gave in and I coached, and brought her over to the Hawks.”
While keeping his construction work, Judge immersed himself in clinics and got a swift handle on how to manage personalities as well as sorting out what made sense to apply from his baseball background. Judge had a natural ability to talk hitting, and he saw how well his squad took to the business of getting prepared mentally.
“One thing I came to learn was, girls need to feel good about themselves to play good; boys need to play good to feel good. That took me a couple years to figure out,” said Judge, who ended up taking over the Hawks program by 2008. “With my background, I knew tendencies, and those won’t change between baseball and softball. I had a knack for putting players in a position to succeed, worked well with hitters. There’s a lot of strategy in softball; you have to get used to slappers, re-entry rules.”
Very soon in the process, Judge began to look at the horizon, and that’s not because he liked pretty sunsets. HIs father had placed him on travel baseball teams that took on D-I caliber talent, and the younger Judge figured his team would benefit from the same experiences. The Hawks were already fulfilling their athletic potential, and they liked the idea of being road warriors.
“I built the same model with these girls, knowing it would be a shock at first. We had to see where we were, and I think it worked,” he said. “The girls were put it a lot of high-pressure games, and they learned how to adjust and be mentally strong. When we took second at the Triple Crown Sparkler in 12u Gold, I figured we had something special going. We have every year won a bid to ASA Nationals, haven’t missed a single one. That grew into going to showcase events.”
The 18u Hawks and the coaching staff will be telling stories about those road trips for decades. Fortunately, the van never rolled off the highway into a ditch; no food poisoning from sketchy diners or ratty food carts at the field. But how the Hawks were received sometimes caused a little indigestion.
“Wherever we traveled, there was no easy road. We’d go into people’s backyards, their own tournaments that they host and are supposed to win, and we just came to realize you’re not going to get many calls,” said Hawks assistant coach Dan Cothern, whose daughter Jessica is a catcher and will play collegiately at DePaul next fall. “There was not a lot of fan support other than who was already with us. You had to go out, beat the teams, and that gave us an edge. Nothing was given. We would re-iterate it to the girls, that you can’t be complacent playing the game. You can’t look up in the sixth inning, realize it’s a close game and say, ‘Oh, it’s time to start playing.’ You have to come out strong right out of the gate and finish strong.”
“We have won many championships with this group, 40-50 in these eight or so years. We have never been given any easy roads,” Judge added. “If you look back at how brackets were set up, the time slots given to us that were sometimes 4-5 hours in between games and all the other things that happen during tournaments, we have always stated to the girls that you have to win this on your own, go out and take it, do not give anyone a chance to take it away from you.
“We have seen some crazy things in these years. One game I had a pitcher not get a called strike for seven outs! Almost impossible, right? I think all of these things have molded our girls into the players and people they are today, great student athletes who know how to finish something they start, a very resilient group who I couldn’t be more proud of, coaching staff included.”
Aside from the amusing tales everyone has taken away, the Hawks have received other benefits by playing and staying together from an early age. When practice sessions are intense and the tank feels like it’s about empty, players use each other to find the motivation to press on. If someone’s effort or focus is flagging, the players know each other well enough to police the situation without turning it into a dramatic episode.
Judge said the team’s natural chemistry has allowed him to coach much more calmly than he did in the early days. And Cothern appreciates the joy of working with a team that instinctually works together.
“Just by a nod of the head or a mannerism, they know the call. Who is covering, how the play is handled – it’s just effortless,” Cothern said. “When you have teams you have to put together, it takes a lot of effort; maybe they were taught different ways, and to get them to play as a unit takes a lot longer.”
“I love the fact we’ve been playing together since fifth grade. I love that base we have, how I trust them and how they are like family to me,” said Isabell Alexander, who will patrol the outfield at Northern Kentucky next fall. “You know the strengths and weaknesses, and I think that’s why we’ve always done so well. All the traveling also made us come closer, because those (offer) the specific moments you need to come together. I remember that Sparkler tournament when we were 12s to this day – that was amazing, how we played all day, start to finish … never so much softball in my life as that day.”
The Hawks’ coaches feel the crazy state of club softball these days makes it almost impossible for teams to experience the same kind of connection. To hang in there, build a roster and not be tempted to jump ship at the first sign of adversity is a rare thing.
“It takes patience to build, especially out here. You get a lot of disgruntled parents, because they feel their daughter should be playing more,” Judge said. “They’ll go off and start their own teams the following year. There are organizations that draw nationally, and they’ll cherry-pick the ones we developed with the promise of something more. It’s not easy. To do what we’ve done for as long as we have done it, is very gratifying.”
“Now, there seems to be no boundary. Fall, winter – parents think if they can get their kid to a team that will put them on the next level or a better position, the parents will just up and move,” Cothern said. “It’s hard to find that cohesion and a group that plays multiple years together. I don’t even think it’s the kids as much as the parents, getting in there and making things difficult to run an organization. You might go through peaks and valleys.”
With one summer to go, the Hawks 18u team expects a satisfying end to their run. From a modest start, more than 15 players are headed to D-I. The program as a whole has five teams now, and Judge is back on board with the 14s, with daughter Jenna on the field (Kendal will pitch for Minnesota in 2016). He may have been a baseball at the start, but his heart is with softball now.
“I was a bit surprised (how much I took to it). I went into it with an open mind, not knowing how I would react or how long I’d want to do it,” He said. “If there’s a softball game and a baseball game on the TV, I’d watch the softball game now. I’m a baseball purist, but I’ve learned to love this game.”
“It’s going to be different, from 120-140 Hawks games a year to my daughter heading to college. It’s hard to grasp what that will be like,” Cothern said. “For the girls, they are a lot more relaxed and having a lot of fun. They’re not stressing over things. In that 14-16 range, with all the recruiting, they would be super nervous. It’s coming to an end, and I think they are enjoying the game now. Colleges are still watching, they are still playing big teams, but they seem to be having more fun.”
“I think it will be both bittersweet and exciting. We do have a lot of seniors who have been together so long,” Alexander added. “It’ll be good to go out with a bang. We want to make it so the sophomores and juniors coming up will have it all set for the next years. We want to give it our all, and keep that legacy going.”
With more than 30 years invested in the world of club fastpitch and a competitive fire that started it all in the athletic hotbed in Houston, the Impact Gold program has obvious markers of success.
Dozens and dozens of teams, multiple locations in and out of Texas, stellar finishes at national events – there’s no doubting the Impact’s reach. However, program director Jazz Jackson couldn’t help but feel a bit restless when she considered the big picture a couple of years ago. Could the passion and drive at the root of on-field accomplishments be directed at something greater?
“Be the Impact” had been the working motto of the Impact’s top-ranked 18u team (coached by Jazz’s father, KC Jackson), and like a fastball right over the plate, Jazz thought that was a theme her club could hit out of the park. So about two years ago, the “Be the Impact” foundation was formally started with the goal of broadening what players and coaches could do, and could change.
“I feel like in softball, there is so much gimme, gimme, gimme. Even in our organization, as we were becoming bigger, the impact in the community didn’t feel like there was enough, that we weren’t giving back enough, and that’s where it started,” said Jazz, who had a terrific softball career at LSU and coached at the University of Houston before taking the helm with the Impact. “We have all these teams, all this stuff – other organizations had ways they used to give back, and I didn’t like that more women weren’t benefitting from it. I specifically chose a path that helped women.”
Jackson makes it a priority every year to meet twice with coaches and players throughout the program and cement what the expectations are in terms of community service. In the beginning, it was a no-brainer as she saw a wave of cancer diagnoses rumble through the organization.
“We will go with our gut feelings (on who to support). We had five parents in our organization that I personally knew who got breast cancer – it shocked me and it hit home, three on my team, two on my dad’s, who were diagnosed and started treatment in the same year (2015),” she said. “Rather than wear the pink jerseys you normally do for breast cancer awareness – that year, took money and donated it. I thought if we could do it as an organization, that would be pretty awesome.”
The first time “Be the Impact” showed its full muscle was during a fundraiser for the Mission of Yahweh, a homeless shelter for women and children.
“Our players had an opportunity to sponsor a food drive for a local women and children’s homeless shelter. We collected food and diapers from family, neighbors and local businesses, and delivered all donations to the shelter,” said Molly Ellis, foundation board member and the person tapped by Jackson to focus the program’s outreach. “The girls then unloaded and helped the shelter administration weigh and organize the donations. Our Impact Gold players ended up donating 1,100 pounds of food and diapers; we then met the resident children in the courtyard and played softball with them for a couple of hours.
“The food drive will be an annual community service project for Impact Gold. We also made and delivered as a group Easter baskets to two local women and children homeless shelters. This summer we will help clean yards for elderly residents and do light repairs if needed. We also plan on partnering with local businesses and non-profits to help assist and provide volunteers for their events and or missions, in return, they sponsor our foundation with monetary donations to help fund travel for players with current financial needs.”
In the often-frantic environment of high-level club softball, the pursuit of a college career and the fierce competition that exists between (and sometimes within) teams can make it difficult to think of others. The “Be the Impact” foundation is dedicated to creating balance on that unstable turf, and to show each other the value of supporting each other now and in the future.
“We also have an intern program for our past Impact Gold players to come back and work with our current players,” Ellis said. “In the summer of 2017, we will have five past players interning with Impact Gold in marketing, strength and conditioning coaching, assistant coaching and entrepreneurship. These same past players will work with current players on college readiness.”
One of those players is Tori Vidales, a key player on the Texas A&M roster – as a junior, she had 50 career home runs and was hitting .359 entering NCAA Super Regionals play this May. She credits the Impact with not just fostering her growth as a player, but also fortifying her plans for after college.
“I’ve wanted to be in sports broadcasting world since high school. We played a lot of TV games with the Impact; they’d want to do interviews and we would sit down and talk, give them some background about our team,” Vidales said. “When I moved on to college, I worked with 12th Man Productions at A&M, so Jazz knows that’s my passion. She’s given me opportunities, asked me to speak at a coaches meeting to talk about my experience with the Impact and my journey through the program … how it shaped me, what I live by now, and the advice I would give to players.
“I tried to give them a sense of what happens behind the scenes, and not just what’s it’s like on the field. It was a great opportunity, probably 100 coaches; I talked in front of a lot of people who have an influence on the girls’ lives. Jazz also gave me the idea to start a blog, to get some experience and talk about softball.”
Jackson and the “Be the Impact” foundation is always on the hunt for ways to keep players actively getting better as athletes, while preparing them for the day when the uniform is put away.
“Our kids get something from this, seeing how you can get after and work for your own dreams,” Jackson said.
“It’s important for the athletes to know, once you are part of the Impact program, it’s important to buy in,” Vidales added. “The coaches know what they are talking about, they know the game, and they know athletes at this age because they’ve been at it so many years. Trust it and the rest will fall into place. You’ll learn how to respect the game, and you’ll improve your softball IQ. That’s why I support the Impact so hard – they gave me so much; they provided me with these opportunities.”
With a lot of activities percolating on the schedule, and a legion of young women ready to address concerns outside themselves, the foundation is motivated to fulfill Jackson’s vision.
“’Be the Impact’ will continue to raise money to help players in a financial need travel to the tournaments necessary for their success. We never want money to be a reason a young woman cannot continue with her dream,” Ellis said. “We will continue to empower young women, and keep them invested in the foundation. When they are personally invested, we hope they come back to Impact Gold and volunteer their time and talents to other young women that want to follow in their footsteps. Finally, we want to leave the foundation better off than when we found it. That is the definition of success.”
Given enough time, somebody would have figured this out for softball.
When the world of medicine throws resources at a problem, treatments are discovered. When you put a string-bean adolescent in a position to get weight-training and diet help, a stronger person emerges on the other side. And when you dedicate funds, training and passion to a youth sports enterprise starving for attention, good teams feed on that and rise to the surface.
It’s not what Will Tomasello would have predicted had he been asked 20 years ago about giving back to the kids of Georgia. But after seeing the condition of the sport when his daughter started playing in 2001, the Atlanta tax attorney extended his hand to help lift up a hobbled enterprise. In the southern part of the nation, it took until the late 1990s for fastpitch to be added as a high school sport, and at the turn of the century, Tomasello’s Georgia Impact organization was only the third one operating in Atlanta.
“After two years watching the game, I realized the sport was predominantly played by blue collar folk. If anything barred their entry into the game, quite frankly it was money,” Tomasello said. “I felt like there was a space that was wide open and a need not being met for kids who wanted to play but couldn’t afford the price tag. So I was determined to see that our club wouldn’t extort dues and fees from its members. It’s an association of teams, not an organization. All of (the remainder, like uniforms and equipment) is funded privately, a team by team enterprise, raising and spending its own money.”
This had the effect of releasing a pent-up group of motivated athletes onto a fresh canvas, where they could paint their own success stories. As the years went on, Impact teams began to settle in at the top of the standings in every important event on the fastpitch calendar, while sending more and more athletes to play at the collegiate level. And now at 12 teams, the organization continues to move at full-speed with its mission.
“We’ve got the dollars to spend; others have to pull it together with nickels and dimes. We blistered the learning curve pretty quick, which accelerated the timetable on our teams, which has driven us to the success of where we are in the last few years,” Tomasello said. “The success of my club is the coaching staff. I identify and typically recruit the same kind of coach – self-employed people who are highly motivated and driven. They get a code of conduct, a strict schedule of where will we play, and we apply our collective resources to what we feel is a competitive plan.”
One of those coaches is Patrick Lewis, a coach on the powerful 18 Gold team and manager of an equally promising 16u team that was a national runner-up as a 14u program. Growing up, he was in the middle of travel fastpitch, with his dad coaching and his sister playing.
Lewis and Tomasello have had a front-row seat to one of the new trends in the sport, that of the early-verbal commitment that sometimes features 14-year-old girls tying themselves to a college program. While on the surface, that kind of security and the implied financial relief of having college sorted out is a positive, there are a lot of unintended consequences that have resulted from a trend that doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
“It’s our job to coach these kids up and help them in their journey; parents get caught up thinking we’re there to get their daughter a scholarship, and that we’re responsible for that. It ends up creating a sense of entitlement with parents; it takes away team unity,” Lewis said. “Parents (create) an environment where teammates are competing with teammates. We preach about the importance of being happy for another player’s success, and the early verbal has taken that away.
“A lot of them quit working – they think, what’s the goal? I’ve been working hard to get this scholarship, and I got it, so the goal is complete. I can hang it up. But really, that’s when the work starts. Schools will verbal a lot of kids because it’s a business, and you can’t blame them for it. Some kids will get caught up in this, not continue to advance, the schools get more verbals than they can sign, and kids will get turned loose. I don’t know how we stop it. It will take all the coaches in the power conferences to say, we’re not going to do it, but no one going to be the lead in that. They can’t be – it’s an arms race.”
“The game is evolving, but de-evolving with respect to this early verbal phenomenon. That financial burden we were trying to take off the parents is going back on, because they have to make these trips to (showcase) events earlier and earlier,” Tomasello said. “First as eighth graders, then ninth graders, then 10th, and after that, their college coaches want to see them playing against the toughest competition around the country. They don’t have the luxury of waiting until they are juniors, and then making that first trip to Colorado.
“We’re going to have to rethink what we’re doing. We’re back in the same soup because of the early verbal.”
That still-fresh pool of potential players is not going anywhere, according to the Impact.
“We produce as good if not better athletes than any other state – where we are deficient is developing softball players. In California, the history and depth of knowledge is so incredible, and we struggle to put that together,” Tomasello said. “We’re hungry, we’re constantly taking courses, going to camps and trying to learn and get better at the craft. But it just takes time.”
While the shifting landscape in fastpitch causes Tomasello at Lewis to reflect on just how crazy things have become, they can see the ripple effects of the lives they’ve touched through the sport, just by the stories they hear from players who are now knee-deep into their adulthood.
“Seeing girls who aren’t inherently very confident – to be able to play a sport and be able to compete against the best players in the country has allowed them to be more confident in themselves as they go about their life’s journey. We’re not just developing ball players, we’re creating better people,” Lewis said. “I take a lot of pride in that. Women’s athletics have come so far, and the speed of information – it’s more acceptable now than in any time, and people understand women athletes can really play. I think they’re more fun to watch than male athletes. Sponsors understand these are women who become decision makers in their homes; there are more opportunities for women’s sports to be in the spotlight, which is really cool.”
“That’s what keeps us in the game. While there is a professional option, it’s not a commercial place to make a career out of. It’s about getting an education and empowering these girls with opportunity,” added Tomasello. “There’s no greater gift you could give me, to look up and see there are 30 or 40 girls verballed from our club who are going to get top-flight educations from some of the premier universities in the country. That will set them on a trajectory for success.
“As they get older, they call me, and they reflect on their time as a player and their experiences, but more importantly, they started their lives and are in Pittsburgh and Syracuse or the University of Florida, and they have accounting or law degrees … to know you had a hand in that is what gets you out of bed in the morning.”