Where the Diamonds Shine
4 Sep, 2021By: Peter Francesconi
There’s no question that the pandemic has taken its toll on most team sports over the past year. Year-end 2020 research by the Physical Activities Council shows participation declines for both fast-pitch and slow-pitch softball vs. 2019, no doubt driven by lockdowns that forced cancellation of many tournaments, events and leagues.
But still, as 2021 began, there were nearly 6.5 million regular slow-pitch players and nearly 2 million fast-pitch. And there are indications that the sport continues to pick up, as travel restrictions have relaxed and players, coaches, organizers and venues all settle in with safe practices. These locations continue to do all they can to keep the softball diamonds shining brightly.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
At the end of July, more than 100 softball teams assembled in Ann Arbor for the USSSA Fast-Pitch World Series. “We have numerous top-notch facilities throughout Washtenaw County that can handle softball events,” says Mike Malach, the executive director of the Ann Arbor Sports Commission. “Each community has its own rec fields, mostly consisting of a four-diamond cloverleaf. In addition, we have access to a collegiate field. Seating at these venues ranges from 100 or so up to about 500, and all the fields have restroom facilities, concession areas and plenty of parking.”
Malach says the Ann Arbor Sports Commission helps event owners in many ways. “In some cases, we manage the facility [such as at Eastern Michigan University Softball Field], in other cases we help secure their use. We offer help with marketing and social media, arranging for volunteers and much more. We fill multiple roles with event owners and really listen to them to see exactly how we can help out.”
The area is easy to reach, too — the Detroit Metropolitan Airport is just 25 miles east of Ann Arbor, and highways, bus lines and rail service all converge on the area. When athletes are not on the diamond, Washtenaw County offers many attractions, including museums, galleries and shopping, along with some of the best restaurants in the Midwest.
The baseball/softball complex at the Branson RecPlex has two 200-foot and two 300-foot diamonds, with batting cages, concessions, restrooms and bleacher seating for 200 spectators on each field. The RecPlex itself is a 35-acre complex with both indoor and outdoor facilities, including a 44,000-square-foot recreation center that includes meeting/party rooms and concessions.
“Since its opening in 2005, the RecPlex has hosted more than 60 national and World Series softball championships, with organizations such as Perfect Game Midwest, ASA, USSSA and FASA,” says Terra Alphonso, director of sports marketing and development for Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & CVB. Branson Parks & Rec also oversees 16 parks in the city, including Alexander Park, which offers two youth softball fields.
One of the jewels of Branson is Ballparks of America, which features two-thirds scale replicas of five iconic baseball stadiums: Wrigley Field, Tiger Stadium, Busch Stadium, Ebbets Field and Fenway Park. While known for its baseball on the synthetic turf fields, preparations are underway for Ballparks of America to host youth fast-pitch softball tourneys starting in spring 2022. The complex, managed by Sports Facilities Management, has MLB-style, air-conditioned team suites that include big-screen televisions, individual lockers and access to private showers.
Off the field, Branson offers world-class attractions and entertainment for all ages, living up to its motto as the “Live Music Show Capital of the World.”
With innovative venues and acres of space, Chattanooga was made for sports. For softball, the area can accommodate any size event, including the annual Connect Sports Showcase Tournaments, which bring in more than 300 teams annually. Coming up, the NCAA has awarded the area DII Softball National Championships for 2023, 2025 and 2026.
Key venues include the 83-acre Summit of Softball Complex, with eight lighted diamonds (with dugouts) that can accommodate both youth and adult events. With an environmentally conscious design, the complex offers concession areas, restrooms, shaded viewing areas and bleachers, picnic facilities, meeting space and more.
The Warner Park Softball Complex has five fields plus the 3,000-seat Frost Stadium, which is home to the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga team (and will host the upcoming NCAA DII Championships). Adjustable fencing is used to create youth diamonds. Another top venue is the Camp Jordan Arena and SportsPlex, which offers eight lighted softball diamonds with dugouts, also utilizing temporary fencing for youth fields, and with concessions at each quad. Camp Jordan has pavilions and indoor meeting and banquet space, too.
“Chattanooga is just the right size for any event,” says Brant Donlon of Chattanooga Sports. “It’s our location, tangible and intangible assets, combined with a vibrant downtown that have defined Chattanooga as a sports destination. We strive to provide the best experience for everyone.”
Collier County, Florida
In the Naples, Marco Island and Everglades area, known as Florida’s Paradise Coast, the web address for the sports commission says it all: sportsinparadise.com. The area offers state-of-the-art facilities, a vast range of accommodations, terrific dining and more than 30 miles of pristine beaches.
For softball, one of the premier facilities is North Collier Regional Park, with five lighted grass fields, covered seating, concessions, an indoor promoter’s room and more. The diamonds are arranged in a convenient wagon-wheel design. The park also features a Sun & Fun Lagoon, water park, hiking and biking trails, fitness center and gymnasium.
Veterans Community Park has three lighted grass softball diamonds with bleachers, concessions and restrooms, along with a dog park and picnic pavilions; and Golden Gate Community Park offers two lighted grass softball fields. Coming in 2021 is the Big Corkscrew Island Regional Park, with two lighted grass diamonds with covered seating. Then in 2023, four more fields are expected to be added.
“Our grounds crews are the heart and soul of our facilities,” says Casey Doyle, the sports and special events coordinator for Collier County Parks & Recreation. “They provide the best service possible. After every event, we are told we have one of the best grounds crews in the country.”
Champions Park, in Newberry, Florida, is one of the premier tournament complexes in the U.S., with 16 lighted diamonds with artificial turf infields and Bermuda grass outfields and 220-foot permanent fencing. The facility, which can accommodate any level of fast-pitch softball, attracts more than 30,000 visitors annually. Additional features include dugouts, covered spectator viewing areas, eight batting tunnels, observation towers for coaches and concessions.
The Hal Brady Recreational Sports Complex has four lighted softball fields (with skinned infields) and 200-foot permanent fences, including a Championship Stadium that can seat 2,500. The natural grass Katie Seashole Pressly Softball Stadium is home to the Florida Gators softball team and can seat 1,200 fans. Other venues include Jonesville Park and Easton-Newberry Sports Complex, each with two lighted softball diamonds and 220-foot permanent fences.
This past spring and summer, the area hosted the 80-plus-team PGF Mojo Invitational in May; 108 teams for the PGF Florida Summer States annual event in June; 81 teams for the annual Show Me The Money Showcase; and 91 teams for the annual Backwards K Showcase.
“From a small softball invitational to a youth World Series event and college showcase, the Gainesville Sports Commission is here to help make every event experience exceptional by providing the perfect softball facility for athletes, families and spectators,” says Joleen Cacciatore Miller, executive director of the Gainesville Sports Commission.
Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Alabama
The Gulf Shores Sportsplex and Orange Beach Sportsplex both host youth, high school, college and adult softball tournaments. Gulf Shores offers six grass fields, with a group of five 300-foot softball/baseball fields that encircle an elevated, indoor press box and officials’ area. For larger events, Johnnie Sims Park, also in Gulf Shores, offers four diamonds in a cloverleaf. The Orange Beach Sportsplex has four softball fields (one is being upgraded to a high-school-caliber stadium).
The area has hosted softball events of all sizes. One of the largest, in 2020, was the USSSA Fastpitch National Championships, which brought in 350 youth teams. While numbers weren’t available yet for the 2021 event, it was estimated that more than 550 teams would be attending. The upcoming calendar includes events such as the Coastal Alabama Sun Chiefs Classic, NAIA and the University of Mobile Gulf Coast Invitational, and USSSA Fastpitch National Championship.
“Softball is consistent business for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, and we’ve seen growth this year by adding a senior event and building on existing events,” says Michelle Russ, CSEE, vice president of sales for Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events.
Off the field, players, coaches, families and friends will find no shortage of fun, from relaxing and playing on the beach to exploring the 28 miles of paved trails in Gulf State Park, to deep sea fishing, shopping, dining and more.
Players of all ages — from 5 years old through adult senior divisions — make their way to Lubbock’s many state-of-the-art facilities as the “Hub City” has become a premier softball destination. Venues offer easy tournament play with minimal distance between complexes, and each facility has regulation-size fields, concessions and more.
The Berl Huffman Athletic Complex offers four LED-lighted diamonds, including a center stadium with bleachers surrounding the field and restrooms that utilize recycled water. The Dirk West Complex has three lighted fields, restrooms and seating for 100 fans. The Lubbock Youth Sports Complex has 12 lighted fast-pitch softball fields (plus four baseball diamonds) with bleacher seating for 250, four concession stands and restrooms.
In addition, there are fields at six Lubbock area high schools, which include seating for 250 to 500 spectators, restrooms and concessions. Also, the Rocky Johnson Softball Complex at Texas Tech University has one lighted diamond with seating for nearly 1,200.
Recently, Lubbock Sports hosted the National Junior College Athletic Association WJCA Softball Championships at the Plains Capital Park, which brought in more than 1,000 athletes, officials and spectators.
“Lubbock is well-equipped to meet the needs of every event,” says McKenna Dowdle of Visit Lubbock. “Our team offers a variety of services and hospitality, including game and event staff and volunteers, access to experienced umpires, marketing efforts, and assistance booking hotels rooms.”
Located south of Austin and east of San Antonio, the city of Seguin is home to two softball facilities. The Fields at Huber Ranch is a five-diamond complex with 200-foot fences. Each field also offers shaded seating, and there’s a large, air-conditioned concessions and dining area. In the heart of the city is the Seguin 4-Plex, offering four softball fields.
Often, when large events come to town, both facilities are utilized. Seguin has recently hosted the South Texas NCS State Summer Championship, as well as the Huber Ranch Elite Championships, each of which bring in up to 60 teams, with thousands of spectators. In the upcoming year, multiple college recruiting camps and several college showcase tournaments are scheduled.
“Visit Seguin is able to assist tournaments in various ways,” says Blaire Zahn of the CVB. “We’re happy to help boost advertising for our tournaments to help bring in traveling teams, provide welcome bags for visitors with local coupons and other information, and assist with hotel blocks and housing. Our team can support the tournament with onsite registration assistance and help find volunteers to assist as well.
“In Seguin, we believe in the power of teamwork and recognize that a successful tournament is a win-win for all, from the players to the organizers and for all of Seguin.” SDM