Little League softball usually takes a back seat to Little League baseball, but it is hard to argue with the track record of success at Thornydale Little League. The league based out of Arthur Pack Park has been dominant.
Since 1990 the league has won 48 regional championships, including both that they had teams entered this year. A third team, the juniors, has already qualified for the west regional.
Many things have gone into making Thornydale so competitive. While other leagues have come and gone, Thornydale has maintained a level of excellence.
“We have really, really committed board members, coaches and parents,” said Suzie Garcia, who is the Softball Player Agent for Thornydale and has also served as Softball VP in years past. “In Little League to keep a softball program strong, you really have to be in it for the long haul.”
That has been important for Thornydale. Garcia has been involved with softball for eight years, even though her daughter aged out long ago and is now in her early 20’s. Other leagues have struggled with continuity, some seeing entire softball programs disappear when one or two key people choose not to continue. Leagues like Western, CDO and Tanque Verde no longer field teams, while others like Canyon View are not nearly as strong as they once were.
“So many have failed,” Garcia admitted. “They are just gone.”
There are a number of reasons why some leagues have thrived, some leagues have survived and some have completely disappeared. Unlike baseball, there is actually more competition for softball players. Although there are travel baseball teams, most seem to work within the framework of the Little League season. In softball you have alternative local leagues, many falling under Baja Girls Fast Pitch. A number of the old little league teams have quietly morphed into Baja leagues. An even bigger competition is ASA or club softball.
“Our primary competition for girls here is that the perception that ASA is more competitive,” Garcia said. “Others think that we are too competitive and they play in other fast-pitch leagues.”
Garcia understands the desire for players to compete in both Little League and club team. Garcia sees Little League as a chance to play with friends, though she stressed that it still remains competitive.
Garcia says they encourage their coaches and players to pursue club ball, but hope they attempt to play both.
“I don’t take it personally, but I am sad when we have a group of girls who have a team here, then form a club team and don’t come back,” Garcia said.
Sarah Gaalswijk is a Thornydale Little League alum who later went on to play at Mountain View and is now playing at Central Conneticut State. She feels too many girls are moving on to club ball, and the intense schedules, before they are ready.
“It breaks my heart to know nowadays so many young girls are turning to club ball so soon and leaving little league behind,” Gaalswijk explained. “I truly believe that this is a mistake they will regret. Little League gives you so much that club ball can’t offer. It allows you the experience of playing for a couple of months and then to have some time off to do things other than softball.”
The league not only has a team in the Western Regional, but is hosting it. That junior team is one that is able to balance club softball and Little League. More than half the players on the team also play club.
Melissa Calderon is not only the coach of the junior league team but has been a member of the league’s board. This year she is the VP for Softball and has also served as the player agent for softball. She knows the hard work it has taken to keep the league as strong as it has been.
“Thornydale softball has been successful due to the passion and commitment of the players, coaches, and parents,” explained Calderon. “The softball program prides itself in fostering and growing young players in softball fundamentals but this is not done without knowledgeable coaches at all levels and the dedication of each player with the support of their parents.”
The leagues that have thrived have had continuity on their boards. Some leagues see a boon when they have the parent of a really talented player come through the league, but once that player ages out, the parent is no longer involved and the league regresses. Garcia has remained involved, despite her daughter now being in her 20’s. It is hard work, but the league has benefitted from her and others who have remained involved.
“You can pass the torch, or stay past the time your child aged out,” Garcia explained. “It’s not easy. It really involves time, dedication, e-mails to keep the kids coming back. Keep the parents involved.”
An emphasis on baseball is also a factor in other leagues. While Thornydale has more baseball players than softball, they still have a core group of softball players, especially at the younger ages. That is the other thing that makes Little League softball tough: as the girls get older their interests diversify. Some concentrate on other sports, while other find the distractions of middle school and their teens more interesting.
The final secret to the league’s success has been creating a family atmosphere. Game nights at Arthur Park can be a real social experience. Unlike other parks, four of the five fields are very close together, so people see the same faces night after night.
“When you play ball here it is like walking into Cheers, everyone knows your name,” Garcia explained. “It is continuity and a sense of community.”
So much so that there are a number of former players who now have kids in the league.Some even coach. In many cases former players come back to watch younger siblings or just soak in the atmosphere and a little nostalgia.
“For most of my childhood Arthur Pack was like my second home,” Gaalswijk said.
Kurt Mattes played in the league, later went to Mountain View and now has seen his children play in the league. He remembers playing in the league before Arthur Pack opened. Gaalswijk takes time out over the summer to give personal lessons to players in the league.
“I truly believe that playing little league builds such a solid foundation and looking back I wouldn’t have given up my time playing Little League for anything,” Gaalswijk said. “It was truly some of the greatest moments of my childhood.”