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.”