Travel softball players willing to sacrifice summer activities to showcase talent
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There's a reason it's called travel softball.
Miles are just a number for the players, coaches and followers who flock from town to town and field to field to gauge their skills and compete against others doing the exact same thing.
Travel teams make more summer stops than a touring rock band plugging a new album. And many of the top travel-ball players from the Alle-Kiski area say in one harmonic voice: Rock on.
“The farthest I've traveled was to Tennessee two summers ago,” said recent Highlands grad Cassidy Runyan, who played for the Pittsburgh Predators. “It was a blast.”
It's become a custom in the A-K Valley, these map-dotting roadtrips. Parents and coaches load up — and often decorate — the family vehicle and hit the highways, weaving up and down the East Coast and around the country for dozens of tournaments, some designed to showcase the next-big-thing players, others to keep girls ultra competitive outside of high school season.
Softball trips have taken on the same enthusiasm and showmanship of renaissance fairs. It's serious stuff. But has it become too much? Too much time? Too much money?
Is it a freshly paved path to burnout?
Many players say no. Softball clearly cuts into summer vacation for many girls, some of whom play late into July and August. But they say forget cookouts and bonfires; keep the doubleheaders coming. Go the distance.
Travel season simply is a way of life for many of them, more of a regular routine than a chore, and ultimately a gateway to college.
“My summer would not be the same if I didn't play travel ball,” said Riverview's Hannah Larkin, who plays for the Pittsburgh Freedom 18-Under team. “I never feel like I lose my summer because I play with all my friends and our families are all together every weekend. The thought of only having two tournaments left this summer is sad to me.”
Larkin, a first baseman who will be a senior next year, has been playing travel ball since she was 8 years old.
Recent Deer Lakes graduate Sierra Sarver also has been a travel regular, playing first base and blasting home runs for the Pittsburgh Power. She hasn't regretted one long trip, one shortened summer.
“Not at all because that is my (normal) summer that I love,” she said. “And without it I would have never been able to go to the college that I am going to.”
Sarver committed to Rollins College (Fla.) before her senior season.
No underhanded tactics from Runyan, either. A sure-handed shortstop who led the Golden Rams' offense this past season, she admits that the time commitment is extraordinary, but, “I wouldn't want to spend it any other way. During my four years with the Predators, I met my best friends and signed with a college team; that was my goal.”
Runyan will play at Clarion.
Mike Young's three daughters, a trio of standouts at Leechburg, all have played travel ball. Lexie, who will be a sophomore next fall, still does. Her older sisters, Kenzie and Kaysie, played last season together on the Carlow College team. Kaysie was a senior; Kenzie will be sophomore.
The Youngs are the prototypical travel-ball family, rest-stop regulars who keep the gas tank full.
“Our teams go all over,” said Mike Young, who along with his wife, Debbie, help to run the Pittsburgh Freedom organization. “West Virginia, Maryland, Toledo, York. A lot of teams play every weekend in the summer.”
But players don't get much freedom from softball in the offseason, either. Pittsburgh Freedom has a 140-by-100 square foot indoor practice facility in Gilpin.
Young said his daughters wanted to stay close to home so they sought college programs “within an hour” of home.
“With travel ball, it's what you want out of it,” Young said. “If a kid wants to go to a college out of state, they're going to play in a lot of out-of-state tournaments. Neither Kaysie nor Kenzie wanted to leave (Pennsylvania). They wanted to be seen by local schools.”
There are coaches who see a different side of the argument.
“(Travel ball) does some good things for the girls, but sometimes I think they go overboard with it,” Leechburg head softball coach Jim Oberdorf said. “I think most of the coaches are just there for their kids. Some of them aren't quite sure what they're doing. These girls deserve weekend activities. Sometimes they're spread too thin. And there are a lot of parents who don't realize what it takes to play the sport in college.”
Cost often creates a stir, just as it does in AAU basketball, when travel ball comes up in conversation. It costs $650 per girl to play for Young's Freedom team. But that's low-end shopping.
Showcase teams that bring together higher-level college prospects come with a price tag of up to $2,000.
“With those teams, girls are owned by the teams on weekends,” Mike Young said. “With our teams, it's not all about winning and losing. It's about understanding how to play the game.”
“We typically do one out-of-state tournament per year,” Larkin said. “However, I played in a World Series in North Carolina and one at the ESPN Wide World of Sports (Complex) in Disney World. Those were experiences of a lifetime.”
Deer Lakes senior-to-be Tiffany Edwards plays for the Team Pennsylvania Cyclones. The star pitcher said her family spent nearly $1,000 for a trip to the national tournament in Salem, Va.
“It's a huge commitment because you are away from some of your friends every weekend,” Edwards said of travel ball, “but I couldn't imagine not playing all summer.”
Deer Lakes High School coach Craig Taliani estimated his team logged an excess of 400 miles in five WPIAL and PIAA playoff games this past season. But that's a stroll around the block compared to the miles he puts on his SUV for travel ball.
A proud father and fan rather than a coach for his daughter's Pittsburgh Passion team, Taliani has driven to or will drive to tournaments in New Jersey, Ohio and Illinois.
“We're going to be near Hoboken (N.J.), where the ‘Cake Boss' show bakery is,” Taliani said earlier this month. “That's just what we need. You go for a softball tournament and end up spending a hundred bucks on desserts.”
Valley softball coach Carol Perroz doesn't coach travel ball, partly because she doesn't have the time. At least not now. That's because she still plays the game competitively at the age of 51.
And she also hits the road with regularity at this time of year. Perroz has played in tournaments in Hagerstown, Md. and New Jersey, and those are two of nine stops on her schedule.
“I love it,” she said. “As long as the body holds up.”
The adult league national tournament is at Disney World in September.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BillBeckner.
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