Peter Francesconi 2016-09-26 23:32:19
SOFTBALL Making the Pitch for Softball WOMEN’S FAST-PITCH SOFTBALL has had a relatively quick Olympic stint, first appearing in the Atlanta Games in 1996. The U.S. won the gold that inaugural year, then repeated as Olympic champions in 2000 in Sydney and 2004 in Athens. The game last appeared in the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing, when the U.S. took home the silver medal. It sat out the next two innings of the Olympic cycle (2012 and 2016) but with the IOC’s most recent decision, makes its return to Tokyo (along with baseball) in 2020. With more than 7.1 million Americans now playing slow-pitch softball and nearly 2.5 million playing fast-pitch, according to the Physical Activity Council’s 2015 Sports Participation Report, it continues to have a strong following. Those who are planning softball events within the U.S. will find plenty of venues (and committed communities) to help foster future Olympic champions. Chappapeela Sports Park, Louisiana In Hammond, Louisiana, Chappapeela Sports Park, which opened in 2013, offers four diamonds with skinned infields and two adult-size softball fields. “We run a recreational league here and have a nice softball community,” says the Sports Park’s Kaycee Colona, “so there’s a lot of support for the sport.” The Sports Park, which gets about 62,000 total visitors every month, hosted a number of ASA tournaments over the summer. “We’re certainly looking to expand the number of softball events we can host here,” she adds. Hammond, says Colona, “is a nice, quiet little town with great local restaurants” and an active, historic downtown district, with many shops and boutiques, that’s only five minutes from the Sports Park. The sports venue is close to the interstate and area hotels, too. The city is about an hour from New Orleans and 45 minutes from Baton Rouge — “kind of right in the middle of everybody,” says Colona. Dalton, Georgia The city of Dalton, in the northwest corner of Georgia about 35 miles from Chattanooga, has a number of venues with multiple diamonds for hosting large events. Heritage Point Park includes 10 softball fields, in two five-diamond complexes, and is the “go-to” facility for the sport, says Grant Shell, the sports sales manager for the Dalton Area CVB. With 300 acres, Heritage Point also offers a corporate pavilion that can hold 500 people, walking/jogging trails, picnic shelters and more. Other venues for softball include the eight-field Edwards Park and the five-field Al Rollins Baseball Complex. Dalton hosts SPA (Softball Players Association) events that can bring up to 200 adult teams to the area for weeklong men’s and women’s events, including the SPA World Championships. “With our facilities, we can have very large tournaments, yet we’re still a small town,” Shell says. “Every restaurant and hotel knows the teams, and they often have special menus and pricing, and will stay open later for the teams. And we have special parties for them. It’s great — they feel incredibly welcome.” Elizabethtown, Kentucky This summer, the massive Elizabethtown Sports Park hosted a new national softball event, with 10-, 12- and 14-yearold divisions. “It was incorporated into a national baseball event we do, but it was the first time we had held a national softball event for those age groups,” says Janna Clark, the sports and sales director for the Elizabethtown Tourism & Convention Bureau. “It was so successful that we’re looking at incorporating it for two weeks next summer.” Elizabethtown had a very successful softball season this year. “We start very early in the season. We have an NAIA and high school event in early March that we kind of kick off our season with,” Clark says. The E-Town Sports Park offers 12 total ball diamonds, with six of them for softball. The state-of-the-art park spans 158 acres, making it one of the largest sports venues in the country, complete with lighting, well-designed drainage, computerized irrigation and a full-time professional management and grounds staff. Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Alabama Combine a wonderful shorefront area with not one but two beautiful sports complexes — each with its own five-diamond softball “wheels” — and you have a location that is perfect for hosting events that satisfy athletes, families, coaches and tournament organizers. The Gulf Shores Sportsplex offers amenities such as a press box, locker rooms and officials’ rooms, full concessions, stadium seating, Wi-Fi and more. The Orange Beach Sportsplex also offers five softball-specific diamonds and is conveniently located near hotels, restaurants and attractions. “We’ve hosted NAIA championships and the University of Mobile Gulf Coast Invitational for many years, in addition to the Sand Dollar Classic NCAA Invitational,” says Beth Gendler, vice president of sales for the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission. “We do lots of youth and high school tournaments, too, and work a lot with the USSA. The strong local support for softball really makes the high school tournaments amazing events.” Hamilton County, Indiana One of the largest multi-sport complexes in the Midwest is Grand Park in Westfield, Indiana. Now in its third year, the 400-acre facility has 16 lighted softball diamonds — six have skinned infields and eight are synthetic turf with adjustable base paths, which can be set up in different sizes using adjustable fencing. Also in the county is Olio Fields, offering six softball diamonds, all with lights. And if that isn’t enough, says William Knox, director of sports for the Hamilton County Sports Authority, a new four-field complex just opened up at a school a short walk from Grand Park. Last year, Hamilton County hosted a weeklong National Softball Association World Series event that brought in more than 200 teams and used 24 diamonds, Knox says. “We have tremendous support locally with our clubs, which is why we can easily accommodate events as large as the NSA and smaller tournaments, too.” Knox says Hamilton County not only invests heavily in its sports venues, but also in its visitor program. “Our participants have a great experience at our facilities, while also enjoying the rest of the community.” Jefferson City, Missouri The Jefferson City area has a number of facilities for softball events, says Chris Wilson, the sports/film sales manager for the CVB. The Binder Sports Complex, owned and operated by the Jefferson City Park & Rec, offers five softball diamonds, while another public facility, Ellis Porter Riverside Park, has three fields. There is also the privately owned 63 Diamonds Sports Complex, in North Jefferson City, which offers four fields along with portable fencing to configure the fields as needed. All three are natural grass, lighted and have concession stands and other amenities. “Another facility that we’re excited about for the future is the American Legion Complex, which will have two 200-foot fields, for fast-pitch,” Wilson adds. Among the tournaments hosted recently, using a combination of facilities, was the 43-team Summer Crush Invitational, an ASA-sanctioned fast-pitch event. In mid-July, Jeff City hosted the Missouri NSA Gold and Silver Championships for men, and in August, a USSSA Men’s C and D State Slow Pitch event. October also will be the third year softball will be played at the Binder Sports Complex for the Special Olympics Missouri State Outdoor Games. Lincoln, Nebraska Derek Bombeck, the sales development manager for the Lincoln CVB, says support for softball in Lincoln continues to grow. The major softball venue is the Doris Bair Complex, which has seven fields, several with skinned infields. “Doris Bair is constantly busy with ASA, USSA and other events,” Bombeck says. “We host a lot of national and regional tournaments there.” Other venues include the Densmore Park Baseball/Softball Fields, with four diamonds, and Mahoney Park, also with four diamonds. In addition, the Nebraska Wesleyan University softball team plays and practices at University Place Park. Nearby in the town of Waverly are eight ball fields at Waverly Lawson Park Fields and three more at Waverly Wayne Park. The championship facility in town is Bowlin Stadium in Haymarket Park, the home field for the University of Nebraska softball team and host to NCAA events. Lubbock, Texas “Softball is one of our big sports,” says Alyssa Kitten of Visit Lubbock and Lubbock Sports. “We have a ton of local support for the sport, and the city in general hosts a lot of softball events every year.” Among the facilities is the 16-diamond Lubbock Youth Sports Complex and the Berl Huffman Athletic Complex, which offers four softball fields with shaded stands. Also, softball fields are available at the Dirk West Complex in Mackenzie Park. “One of the great things about Lubbock is that anything is pretty much just a 15-minute drive away, which is very important for athletes and families because it’s just so easy to get around,” Kitten says. There also are about 1,000 restaurants in the area, to fit all budgets, and many are happy to host large groups of athletes. As a plus, the area has on average 263 days of sunshine a year. North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina The city runs the North Myrtle Beach Park and Sports Complex, which offers six lighted diamonds — four of them sized for softball, and two others that are for baseball but can be configured for softball. Another NMB facility is Central Park, which has three lighted diamonds, along with amenities such as concession stands, picnic shelters, restrooms, playgrounds and more. “Our two biggest groups here each month are the World Fast-Pitch Connection Softball and Top Gun Softball,” says Erica Hertzer, the sports tourism coordinator for NMB Parks & Recreation. In late October, the area will host the Top Gun Softball World Series, partnering with nearby communities to accommodate all the teams. The North Myrtle Beach facilities are only three miles from the ocean. “We have everything here,” Hertzer says. “And our vendors, hotels, attractions and restaurants all support sports tourism. They participate in a ‘Sports Pass,’ offering discounts to sports teams. We’re a vacation destination with sports on the side.” Raleigh, North Carolina Expect softball in Raleigh to just get better and better. The nine-diamond Walnut Creek Softball Complex, which has played host to NCAA Division III championships and NCHSAA Softball State Championships, among many others, will be closed for 2017 for a $5 million renovation and upgrade. “With softball being one of the major sports markets, this is a great opportunity,” says Jason Philbeck, assistant director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance. “Walnut Creek has been a marquee complex in the area, and we’ve hosted a ton of events, from regional to national softball tournaments. With this upgrade, a great facility will just get better.” There are, of course, other complexes in the area, including in the city of Cary, which is one of the leading sports venues and destinations in the country. Thomas Brooks Park has four diamonds (and is adjacent to the USA Baseball National Training Complex); Middle Creek Park also has four softball fields; and Fred G. Bond Metro Park offers seven fields. Tri-Cities, Washington The Tri-Cities consists of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick and are located in the southeastern part of Washington, in a unique, desert area that receives only seven inches of rain a year. “We have very mild winters here,” says Hector Cruz of Visit Tri-Cities. “So we can start tournaments as early as February and can go late into the fall.” The three cities also have their own softball venues. The Pasco Sporting Complex offers six fields; Richland has Columbia Playfield, with five diamonds; and Kennewick has the fourfield Southridge Sports and Event Complex. In addition, adds Cruz, there are other venues that are used to host softball events, including Horn Rapids Athletic Complex, Lawrence Scott Park and the Civic Center Athletic Complex, each with four fields. “When we team up with other venues, such as private schools and school districts, we have about 50 diamonds available for softball.”
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