Fastpitch on the move

11
Jun

Bob Fromer

These are exciting times for fastpitch softball in the UK.  A lot has happened so far in 2016 – more than for many previous years – and there will be more good news to come over the next few months.

Of course, we are still a country where 95% of the softball played is co-ed slowpitch, which continues to grow at a rapid rate thanks to development work by BSUK and the successful recruitment campaigns carried out by many slowpitch leagues.

But I’m sure that most slowpitch players won’t begrudge the fact that fastpitch is now growing here too, and developing a broader and more sustainable base of players – especially young players – and coaches.  We are all in this together, as certain politicians are fond of saying, but in the case of softball, it’s actually true. 

Co-ed slowpitch is the dominant form of softball in the UK, and the format in which we specialise – witness 10 straight European Slowpitch Championships.  But fastpitch remains the main international competition format, with a range of World and European Championship tournaments and probably soon to be restored to the Olympic Games.  We are better off if we can be strong in both major formats of the game at the same time.

So what’s been happening in British fastpitch softball this year that’s different from what’s gone before?


Two key developments

Two developments stand out in 2016 for British fastpitch -- one domestic and the other international.

Domestically, BaseballSoftballUK and the BSF have both contributed funding to create a new full-time BSUK position for a Fastpitch Development Officer.  Almost 50 people applied for the post from all over the world, and in the end the choice was a Canadian coach and softball administrator named Johanna Malisani.  Jo took up her post towards the end of March, and has quickly become involved in development work to bring new participants into the sport as well as supporting and mentoring national team coaches and programmes.  Later in the year, she will set up a range of courses for fastpitch coaches.

Jo has a dynamic personality and a huge amount of enthusiasm and dedication, and there seems little doubt that she will succeed in her primary mission, which is to grow participation in fastpitch softball and eventually get the format to a point where there are enough players, teams and leagues to move towards the kind of stability that slowpitch and baseball achieved in this country a long time ago.

Internationally, it now looks almost certain that women’s fastpitch softball and men’s baseball will return to the Olympic programme in Tokyo for the 2020 Games.  The Olympic future for the sports beyond that remains in doubt, but even a one-time return to the world’s biggest sporting stage will give baseball, and especially softball, a tremendous boost. 

The final hurdle will be a vote by the full International Olympic Committee (IOC) membership at a session in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of August.  But since the IOC Executive voted on 1 June to approve the proposal that baseball/softball and four other sports be added to the Tokyo Olympic programme, and since baseball and softball are of great importance to the Japanese, no one expects the vote in August to go against our sports.

Only six countries will contest the Olympic Softball Tournament in 2020, but one of them will come from Europe, and the GB Softball programme is now fully focused on putting a team on the field at the 2019 Olympic Qualifier that has a realistic chance of securing that Olympic place.
 

Other highlights

Here are some of the other major developments this year:

Great Britain Fastpitch League.  The GBFL has just concluded one of its most successful seasons, highlighted by the fact that the competition consisted of separate men’s and women’s leagues this year as opposed to the male, female and mixed teams that have all competed against each other over the past three years.  Fastpitch is almost universally played as a single-sex sport by both women and men, and our main fastpitch league now mirrors that reality. 

Lee and Jan Grafton and Kenny Pregnell, who took over the league last year when Stan Doney left the UK, have succeeded in running the GBFL on a more organised and professional basis, and the only way for the league to go is up as more players take up the sport.  A separate youth league next year is a possibility, along with autumn and winter sessions and coaching clinics and there will be a longer GBFL season in 2017.

GB Management Committee.  The GBMC has existed in one form or another since 2008, and is designed to both oversee and support softball national team programmes.  Over the past year, a number of new and highly competent people have joined the Committee, headed by the BSF’s new National Teams Officer Jana McCaskill, and the GBMC has been able to operate more effectively and efficiently as a result and provide a greater degree of support to our national teams.

New Pitching Machine.  Over the past three months, to take just one example, the GBMC has run a successful fundraising campaign to enable the GB Softball programme to purchase a highly sophisticated and durable pitching machine from the United States.  The machine is able to throw spins as well as speed – it throws curves, drops, screwballs and rise balls, and will give GB-based national team players more chance to see the kinds of pitches and pace they will face in international competition. 

Susie Balch-Longboy and Holly Bell-Stevens, who have recently joined the GBMC, headed the fundraising campaign, with most of the money coming from the parents of GB players, supplemented by contributions from the BSF and BSUK.  The machine arrived in the country at the beginning of June and initial trials indicate it will be a valuable training aid for GB Teams and others.

New Fastpitch Programmes.  A number of new fastpitch programmes have come on stream this year, not only in London and the South East, where fastpitch activity has traditionally been centred, but also around the country.

LondonSports, which has offered baseball and slowpitch softball to children and young people for many years on Wormwood Scrubs, began fastpitch competition for girls for the first time this spring.  At the same time, the London Mets Baseball and Softball Club started a fastpitch section this year, and the Mets and LondonSports combined to run fastpitch games on Sundays from March through early June.

At Farnham Park Baseball and Softball Club, BSUK Fastpitch Development Officer Jo Malisani is running weekly sessions to bring women and girls into a new fastpitch programme, and is also running sessions in local schools.

Meanwhile, BSUK North West Development Manager Luis Arrevillagas has overseen the start of a largely-adult fastpitch project in Manchester, long-time fastpitch coach and advocate Paul Cooper continues to work with young fastpitch players in the East Midlands, GB Under-16 Assistant Coach Joss Thompson has gathered a group of young fastpitch players in and around Towcester in Northamptonshire, and David Morris from the Chichester Falcons Softball Club is building a teenage fastpitch section and will host a youth fastpitch tournament in August.


Growth in Men’s Fastpitch.  It’s not just female fastpitch programmes that are increasing in strength and depth.  The Men’s League in the GBFL was able to sustain five teams this year, with some highly competitive play, and the GB Men’s Fastpitch Team, which will compete in European Men’s Championships this summer, will be made up almost entirely of UK-based players, the first time that has ever happened.

More International Competition.  One of the traditional problems for GB fastpitch team players based in the UK is that they do not get enough international competition experience to prepare them for European and World Championship tournaments.  To help remedy this, the GBMC has established the concept of a GB Development Squad, through which players from U-25s to U-13s can get more opportunities to compete against teams from other countries.  This year, a lot of people are helping to make sure that this happens:

  • A GB Select Team of Women and U-19 players attended the high-level annual Indoor Cup tournament in Schiedam, Holland in January, under the auspices of the GB Management Committee, and were able to play against teams from the United States and Europe.
     
  • In March, GB Junior Men’s Team Manager Ian Tomlin took two mixed teams of U-19 players to the annual Tournoi des Expos at Ermont, near Paris, and he will take two more mixed junior teams to Paris in October for the Tournoi de Fleur.
     
  • In March, the London Mets organised an Under-16 girls’ team to compete at the European PONY Championships in Prague.
     
  • On the last weekend of June and the first weekend of July, two international women’s fastpitch tournaments will be held at Farnham Park, giving a GB Select Team consisting of Women and Under-19 players a chance to compete against junior and senior teams from the United States, Denmark and France.  These tournaments are being organised by the GBMC with support from BSUK and the BSF.
     
  • Later in July, GB Softball, the London Mets and LondonSports are combining to take a team of GB Under-19 and Under-16 players to a European Little League tournament in Holland.
     
  • Later in the summer, the GBMC hopes to organise trips to one or two additional tournaments for players at different age levels within the GB Development Squad.
     


The real thing

Meanwhile, this summer’s official international competitions are about to begin, and GB Teams will go into them with high hopes.

First up will be the GB Men’s Fastpitch Team, playing in the biggest-ever European Men’s Championship in Italy under the leadership of new Head Coach Kevin Stockford.  The team will be looking for a number of wins to gain momentum for next year’s World Championships in Canada.

Around the same time that the European Men’s Championships begin, a strong GB Women’s Team, also with a new Head Coach in Rachael Watkeys, promoted after three successful years with the Under-19s, will be arriving in Vancouver, Canada for the biggest-ever Women’s World Championships, with 31 countries competing.  The GB Team will be aiming to get back into the World Top 12 as we move towards that Olympic Qualifier in 2019.

At the end of July, the GB Junior (Under-19) Women’s Team will convene near Barcelona for European Championships under new Head Coach Amanda Murphy.  The GB Juniors achieved their highest-ever fourth place finish in this competition two years ago, and will be looking for a medal this time.

Finally, in August, returning Head Coach Beth Perkins and Manager Julie Spittle will take a GB Under-13 Team to the ESF’s annual Massimo Romeo Youth Trophy competition near Parma, Italy.  The GB Team achieved its best-ever finish in the competition last year and will be hoping to build on that performance this time around.

So there are lots of reasons to be cheerful about where fastpitch softball is going in Britain -- and some good results this summer at World and European competitions will simply be the icing on the cake.


tagged under: fastpitch softball

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About Bob Fromer

Bob Fromer

Bob was the founding CEO of BSUK and now works for the agency as a Communications Consultant. In a volunteer capacity, he was General Manager of the GB Fastpitch National Teams programme for many years, a former Team Manager for the GB Women and GB Under-19 Women and still serves on the GB Softball Management Committee. Bob has been involved with slowpitch and fastpitch softball in Britain since the sport’s earliest days, and travels abroad with many GB Softball Teams to report on their achievements for the BSF website.

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