Aug 23 2016

USSSA is Growing the Game of Fastpitch

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Walking around the University of Alabama's beautiful John and Ann Rhoads Stadium, you know that softball figures prominently in the school's athletic landscape. And that is saying something in the land of football, national championships and legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.

As the students return to campus this week, it is hard not to notice that this state-of-the-art facility has taken on a new identity as host of the 2016 National Pro Fastpitch Championship. Gone temporarily is much of the Crimson and White, replaced with the red, white and blue of the NPF. While many of the 7,000 fans who have attended over the weekend still wear Alabama gear, it is obvious that fans of the Akron Racers, Chicago Bandits, Scrap Yards Dawgs (Houston) and the USSSA Pride (Kissimmee, Fla.) have shown up to not only support their teams, but professional softball and what it means to women's sports.

Looking out over the stands each night this past weekend, it also was obvious to see that the USSSA Pride had the largest fan base in attendance. They came to Tuscaloosa to in numbers and are making themselves at home.

If you listen closely, you will hear that they even borrowed the famed words of Alabama fans worldwide, with one minor change. Instead of "Roll Tide," for these few days it has been "Roll Pride."

The Pride came into NPF for the 2009 season and have won three league championships, taking home the Cowles Cup in 2010, '13 and '14, and five regular-season championships (2011, '12, '14, '15 and '16). Only the Bandits have won as many Cowles Cups, and the two teams are meeting again this season in the championship round in the third and deciding game on Tuesday night.

"When the opportunity came to get a professional team, we felt that might be the only way to get in and get the best players," said Pride general manager Don DeDonatis. "By doing that, we would emulate baseball in having our youth and all of our younger girls want to be pros. We've all been there, we wanted to play Major League Baseball, and we all have our favorite players. We want our girls to have the same."

The Pride roster has been filled with players with Olympic and international experience. Players like Kelly Kretschman (Alabama), Cat Osterman (Texas) and Natasha Watley (UCLA), who won gold in the 2004 Olympics (Athens) and silver in 2008 (Beijing). While Osterman and Watley have retired from the pro game, Kretschman, the oldest player in the league at 37, is coming off her best season and is signed for three more years. The back-to-back NPF Player of the Year was a Triple Crown performer in 2016 with a .466 average, 13 home runs and 45 RBIs in 50 games.

Kretschman's walk-off homer

They all are considered pioneers for the pro game, paving the way for elite college players to keep active and find careers in the game they love.

"I came here from the USA team," says Pride pitcher Jordan Taylor, who won gold in the 2011 Pan-American Games. "I was part of the first wave after the Olympians left to go pro. I played for USA for two years and now we are getting paid to try and make a living."

Pride general manager Don DeDonatis

DeDonatis makes it clear that playing for the Pride is not just about being a professional softball player. There is much more to be done.

"All we are trying to do is grow the sport and take fastpitch to where we think baseball is," he says. "There are a lot of girls playing fastpitch now that are neglected. I think that's the problem, women are neglected in any sport. They've never been treated as equal. It's hard."

The NPF has a salary cap of $150,000 for the complete roster -- hardly enough for the athletes to make a living, but the Pride also does separate deals with each athlete to work for USSSA.

"We are in compliance with the league salary cap, but what we do is try to grow the brand of USSSA," DeDonatis said. "We have a lot of events, a lot of tournaments and clinics, a lot the girls can do. This gives them the opportunity to be around the game and around the kids to showcase themselves, which is important. We can showcase the brand and still showcase the NPF. That's why we played in different venues over the last eight years. We go all over the country to show that this is marketable."

His Pride players get it … and get paid for it.

"The owner is so invested and he loves softball so much," Taylor said. "We have two contracts, one with the Pride and one with USSSA. We are exposed to endorsers and sponsors that can help us out and we can give back. We do a lot of USA Elite events to share our experiences with the younger players. We make sure that the girls will have role models to watch and look up to."

Word has spread among the NPF players of something special going on with the Pride, and winning championships is just a part it.

"From playing on another team, the reputation and expectation of winning is what drove me [to play for the Pride]," said former Cal pitcher Jolene Henderson, in her first season with USSSA. "They have captivated the success and winning. It's a passed-down mindset, an expectation of winning and having fun while you do it. The focus is getting softball on a bigger stage, spreading the league out there all year instead of just three months. They are not only trying to grow the sport, but grow you as a person."

Former University of Georgia standout and multi-year All-NPF performer Megan Wiggins has won a championship with the Bandits (2011) and now is a team leader in her second season with the Pride. According to Taylor, she has been instrumental in spreading the word about what makes the Pride different.

"We have a lot of things that we do off the field," Wiggins said. "One of the big things when I was traded by the Bandits was I want to be able to further my career, not only as softball player, but in life. Being able to give back to the girls better than I got 15 years ago. I am looking to have a career in something, further my career off the field and get something I could not get anywhere else."

If the past and present are indicators, expect the future to be very bright for the USSSA Pride players and fastpitch softball.