June 6, 2010 12:26:00 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
The right gear is just one part of a committed lifestyle.
But double-barreled backpacks, wheeled coolers filled with caffeinated and clear beverages, bags of Cheez-Its to Cheetos to chewy fruit snacks, a rainbow''s array of hair ribbons, or eye-black configurations that would make an artist jealous don''t win games. They only make persevering through a day''s worth of travel softball a little easier for players and parents.
The reward for all of that preparation, which is an integral sidekick of commitment, comes from the chemistry players deliver after playing as many as three to five games in a day.
The Georgia Impact and the Mobile (Ala.) Thrillers came away with the biggest prize Saturday on the opening day of the Amateur Softball Association National Qualifier for the 16-and-under A Division. The Impact and the Thrillers each went 3-0 and will play at 9 a.m. today to decide which team advances to the championship round of the double-elimination tournament at Propst Park''s Redbird Complex.
The loser of today''s first game will fall into the losers'' bracket, which begins at 10:30 a.m. The team that survives the losers'' bracket will have to beat the remaining unbeaten team at 1:30 p.m. and again at 3 p.m. today to earn the tournament''s only bid to the 16-and-under national tournament in August in Texas.
Teams from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Tennessee started Saturday with an equal opportunity to earn that bid. The difference for the Impact and Thrillers wasn''t the snacks they packed deep in their gear, but a level of execution that has been honed through weeks, months, and years of teamwork and dedication from players and parents.
That doesn''t mean being dedicated is easy.
"Oh Lord, we have to play again tonight," said one team''s fan rested his head against a wall that had the tournament''s schedule taped to it. I thought we were done. Oh my aching whatever."
The man ambled away, muttering under his breath that he was off to find some shade.
If only the players were so lucky. Battling through a draining heat and at least one impromptu wind storm, the players looked like they were in their element. The shades of effort left on their jerseys ranged from dingy to grungy. The level of play went from solid to stellar, and the Impact and the Thrillers were at the top of the list.
"The trick is blending committed parents, committed coaches, and committed players," said Greg Giles, the head coach of the Georgia Impact-Giles team. "Once you have those three ingredients, you are going to put a team on the field that is going to compete every weekend."
Giles'' team was known as the Kennworth Bandits before it joined the Impact organization. He has coached the team for the past five years. Since high school teams in the state of Georgia play fast-pitch softball in the fall, the Impact started their campaign in March, and will play 80 games this season.
"Travel ball is a commitment," Giles said. "The 15- and 16-year-old girls are giving up a lot of social time to play softball, so they''re committed to the game."
The Impact''s colors (red and black) are those of the University of Georgia. The team uses the Georgia ''G'' logo, and its players Saturday wore an all black uniform that resembles the attire worn by the Georgia team that has advanced to the Women''s College World Series for the past two years. Giles said the man who is responsible for the Impact organization is a graduate of the University of Georgia.
Giles said the resiliency of his players is a key to his team''s success. He said the team goes into a weekend with a plan for its pitchers (it has three on its 13-player roster), but he said those plans don''t work very often.
They don''t often work because there are so many things that come up in the course of a season. For instance, Maisie Steed, the daughter of coach Leigh Steed, had to take the SAT Reasoning Test on Saturday morning in Georgia. By the time she left Georgia for Columbus, the Impact had played two games. They were in the middle of what would be a victory against the Mississippi Elite when Steed arrived.
Giles said the commitment of Steed and the rest of his players drives the team to reach its potential.
"Next week, we may have another player take the SAT and we may be in Chattanooga, Tenn., if they want to drive after taking the SAT," Giles said. "That''s the way we''re set up, and that''s the commitment everybody makes to each other."
Things are the same for Bob Bickert, the manager of the Thrillers. He said fast-pitch travel ball is a "lifestyle" that takes requires a lot of ingredients for teams to be successful.
"You have to have great coaches so the kids are constantly getting better," Bickert said. "You have to have a hitting facility, or a central kind of location, to work indoors year-round. You also have to have a quality organization so you are teaching the kids more than softball -- about commitment, about ethics, how to behave, about work habits -- all of the things that will benefit them later in life."
Bickert has been a manager with the Thrillers since 2003. The majority of his players are from Mobile, while others are from Birmingham, Ala., and Andalusia, Ala. Bickert''s daughter, Rachel, has been playing travel softball since she was 7.
Bickert said the Thrillers have existed for 15 to 20 years. He said his team, which was called Generation X, merged with the Thrillers after its 12-and-under season so it could be a part of a better-known organization. The Thrillers have travel teams for 10-and-under through 16-and-under. He said they don''t have an 18-and-under team this season.
The 16-and-under team will play in eight tournaments this season and 50 or more games. Bickert said five or the girls on this season''s team have played together since they were on the 10-and-under team. He said the team usually picks up two or three new players a season as players decide to pursue other interests.
Bickert praised the efforts of coaches Jessica McIntyre and Taylor Lee Phillips, who are former University of Mobile softball players. He said McIntyre and Phillips have created a positive and challenging atmosphere that keeps things fun for a team filled with talented and focused athletes.
The Thrillers won each of their games Saturday by shutout, but he knows today could change today.
"They can really hit the ball, so it is going to be a different story," said Bickert, whose team was rained out last weekend in what was supposed to be its first tournament. "I think the two best teams are going to be playing tomorrow. You still have to play every game. We''re capable of winning the whole thing or not winning."
One of the other surviving teams might have something to say about the outcome. The one that proves to be most committed to its game plan will earn the reward and will add another souvenir to its gear.
By then, the Cheez-Its and the individual drink mix packets will be gone and the ice will have melted. But the commitment will remain, ready to be packed and hauled to another city and unleashed on another opponent.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Commercial Dispatch. You can reach him at [email protected]
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.