Ariana Badua of the Hawaii Pearls slides into 1st during her team's game with the Oklahoma Firebirds at Aurora
Sports Park. (Photo: Grant Hindsley, Denver Post)
Feature article from the Denver Post website, posted 7/5/13 at 12:01 AM MDT:
Colorado softball tournaments are biggest in US, with big college recruiting
By Caitlin Swieca
Patty Gasso was on a mission.
Less than a month after coaching Oklahoma's 57-4 softball team to a national championship, Gasso arrived at the Aurora Sports Park dressed in an OU shirt and armed with a thick binder full of names, ready to scout future Sooners.
Although Colorado isn't known as a hotbed of softball talent, it became the center of the sport's recruiting universe this week as three area tournaments—known as Fireworks, Sparkler and Sparkler Juniors—have brought in more than 700 softball teams from 30 states for the nation's largest fastpitch event.
"There's a lot of things going on," Gasso said. "You have to have a game plan or you will be completely confused."
More than 3,000 games will be played July 1-7 at tournament sites in Aurora, Westminster, Greeley and Loveland. Event officials estimate that more than 400 college coaches will have attended, with many top Division I programs represented.
Although the size of the tournaments can be overwhelming, the opportunity to see so many teams from across the nation in one spot is a major benefit for college coaches.
"It's always been a premier tournament that college coaches attend," said University of California head coach Diane Ninemire. "It's a great atmosphere for us to be able to see a lot of teams from a lot of different areas."
The tournaments allow coaches to take care of numerous offseason obligations, including checking up on players who already have committed to their programs and watching younger players they have been in contact with.
Recruiters also catch up with coaches they have had good relationships with and often find players for their watch lists.
"You're looking at this field, then you're turning around and looking at this other field," said Florida assistant coach Kenny Gajewski. "You just never know when somebody's going to catch your eye. You just hope you saw her first."
Gajewski and Gasso said they had players on their roster who they first saw play at the Fireworks tournament.
Unlike some events where teams only participate in pool play, this event allows recruiters to see teams compete for a tournament title.
"In a tournament setting like this, it's more similar to the national tournament, where you get an opportunity to see who is standing last," Ninemire said. "That's really important for us college coaches to see, because we want to see how they really deal with adversity and how they handle victory."
The event includes players in age groups from 12 and younger to 18 and younger. This year's tournaments have drawn some of the top programs in the country, and the event received extra exposure with four games televised Wednesday and Thursday on the CBS Sports Network.
Although warm-weather states such as California and Texas dominate the recruiting landscape, coaches say they're seeing other regions catch up as the sport gains nationwide popularity.
"As long as you have indoor facilities that can accommodate your weather conditions, you can become a great softball player no matter where you live," Ninemire said. "TV has done a great job for our sport, and it's expanding by leaps and bounds."
The tournaments give teams from the Denver area an opportunity to measure up against elite competition. Dick Hormann, coach of the Aurora-based Colorado Pony Express, said area teams benefit from seeing how elite teams carry themselves.
"The intensity level of the California teams and Arizona teams are significantly higher," Hormann said. "That's what we have to learn in Colorado."
Of course, they also benefit from the exposure to college coaches seeking fresh talent.
"There's so many coaches out here," Gasso said. "Sometimes we're all at the same field, and we know why we're there. May the best coach win in the recruiting war."