Inside Events: The National Club Softball Association
25 Jul, 2018By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with Savannah Ahrens, Vice President of Operations & Team Development
The National Club Softball Association (NCSA) is the only inter-collegiate club softball league in the United States. It was created to provide collegiate student-athletes with the opportunity to play competitive, organized college softball and to continually improve this experience for all participants. The NCSA organizes regional play-offs each year which culminate in the NCSA World Series.
NCSA is a division of CollClubSports.
Sports Destination Management: Are club softball programs growing in number?
Savannah Ahrens: Yes! We have seen exponential growth. There are now 135 teams nationally. We are talking about going into two divisions – I think we’ll do that when we get up to having 140 teams.
SDM: Club sports in general are popular.
Ahrens: They are – our organization has programs for collegiate club baseball, tackle football, basketball and softball. Club baseball is absolutely huge; it has over 300 teams spread over three divisions.
SDM: Why do you think they’re popular?
Ahrens: Different reasons, really. In some schools, they’re trying to get an athletic program started, and rather than having to do a full-blown NCAA program and deal with Title IX, for example, the school will start a club program. It also makes it easier for smaller schools to get involved.
SDM: There’s also less pressure on club athletes than varsity athletes.
Ahrens: Yes, and the time commitment is generally less. With club sports, you might practice two days a week, rather than twice a day, which might be the case with NCAA sports – you’ll see athletes there who work out in the morning and practice that afternoon.
SDM: It must make for a great story when you see schools starting their own programs, and then becoming really successful with them.
Ahrens: Yes -- one example of that is Arkansas State. They have wanted an NCAA softball program for eight years now. In 2017, they won our World Series – just a great team that really puts in the work and it was good to see them finally succeed. Last year, the U.S. Naval Academy won, and it was their first win as well.
SDM: What is the process leading up to the World Series?
Ahrens: We have eight geographic regions and each region has a regional playoff. The top two teams in each region move on to the World Series. As the number of teams has grown, so has the level of competition in each region. You really have to earn your way to the World Series by playing 100 percent full-out to win in regionals
SDM: What’s the World Series like?
Ahrens: Traditionally, it’s a Friday to Sunday tournament and it’s held in Columbus, Georgia. They have a great complex with eight fields, which makes it possible for us to have all 16 teams playing at the same time. And right now, we’re in talks to expand the schedule of the World Series to four days.
SDM: Because the number of teams has grown?
Ahrens: Because everyone loves Columbus. It has really grown. They have a full whitewater rafting course, restaurants, shops – a lot of teams have expressed to us that they’d like to stay a little longer and make it more of a vacation as well. Right now, the teams are spending all their time on the field and they don’t really get time to explore. You don’t want to have come all this way and never get to see anything. Of course, I think some of the request for extra time comes from their parents too; they want to have fun in Columbus as well.
SDM: When teams are happy with a place, they tend to talk.
Ahrens: They do – they tell people, “You need to see this place; it’s really cool.”
SDM: Club sports also grow by word of mouth.
Ahrens: We see that a lot. In fact, we saw that in club baseball all the time. You have kids who are friends in high school who will go off to different colleges. When they meet up a few months later, one kid will be telling the other about the club baseball program he joined and how much fun he’s having. The next thing you know, the kid at the other college is calling our office and asking about starting a club program. At one point, the guy in our office who was working on baseball was getting five calls a day from people wanting to start clubs.
SDM: What are the numbers like for the NCSA World Series?
Ahrens: We clocked attendance for 2018 at 1,000 – just spectators. Then you have 16 teams traveling in and each team has an average of 20 players, so you have over 300 players, plus coaches, trainers, umpires – it’s a good number. There are 500 room nights for the teams alone. We haven’t had a way of tracking room nights for spectators yet.
SDM: NCSA is really set with Columbus for its World Series. What do you look for when you’re siting your regionals?
Ahrens: Each year, we add more teams so we’re always working to find them centralized locations. We try to make things affordable since these are not teams that are funded by the schools they play for – they’re usually paying their own room and travel costs and they do their own fundraising to pay for equipment and uniforms. We try to help them out by negotiating field costs, allowing them to run their own concession stands – we want to make it as easy on them as possible.
SDM: Do you see club programs in schools that already have a school-sponsored varsity team?
Ahrens: Yes, that can work really well too. Sometimes, the club program will be a feeder for the varsity squad. Sometimes, a varsity squad will get more uniforms or equipment, and they’ll give the old stuff to the club.
SDM: The responsibility for the management of the club generally falls on the students.
Ahrens: It’s a great learning experience. I played club softball in college, so I see myself in so many of the players I talk to. I know where they’re struggling. I know they’re not being supported by their schools. We try to help them every way we can. We help them create constitutions and budgets and help them get through any approval process their school has – and every school has a different one.
SDM: Do you see students coming back to help after graduation?
Ahrens: Yes, many times, we’ll see them come back as coaches for their college teams. They really have a commitment to club softball and it’s great for me because I couldn’t run all eight regions without them. Something else interesting is that I’ll get calls from parents who tell me, “My daughter is in high school and she really wants to get into this or that college, but it doesn’t have a club softball program. How can we work to get one started up now?”