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.”