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.”