Domestic fastpitch softball had probably its best day ever on Sunday, May 8 at Richings Park Sports Club near Iver in Buckinghamshire.
It was the opening day of the 2011 London Fastpitch Softball League (LFSL) season -- but it can hardly be called a "London" league any more.
Not only is the league, supported and run by BSUK, no longer played in London, but the players came from everywhere.
They came from Norfolk, Nottingham, Brighton, Berkshire and Oxford, as well from all over London and the rest of the South East. They ranged in age from 13 to over 50. Some were slowpitch players, playing the game for the first time, or maybe the second or third time, while others were ex-fastpitch players returning to the sport.
Former GB Fastpitch and GB Slowpitch player Clare Butler came out to watch, but "I brought my kit just in case," and she wound up playing three Division 1 games for the London Angels.
And of course there were the growing number of regular fastpitch players from the GB Senior Women's and Men's Teams, the Under-19 Women's and Men's Teams, some GB Under-16 players and adult club players from last year's league teams.
So where there were just five league teams in the LFSL last year in its inaugural season at Old Deer Park in Richmond, there were 12 teams on May 8 at Richings Park, which will host the league this year, playing 18 games on three fenced pitches, watched by enough parents and other spectators to provide real atmosphere.
Excellent food was served as a fund-raising effort by GB Under-19 parents and players. BASU Fastpitch Commissioner Spencer Suckling, fastpitch newcomer Ronnie van Loo and Larry Rushin (his daughter is a GB Under-16 player) did heroic duty on the umpiring front and will have the bruises to show for it (fastpitch foul tips hurt!). And, thankfully, the forecast rain stayed away. What more could anyone ask for?
GB Fastpitch Performance Director Hayley Scott said, "The day showed the enormous potential that we have for the growth and development of fastpitch in this country. There was some very good softball, everyone played lots of games at the right level and really enjoyed it, and the stronger players in all the teams helped the beginners and the weaker players. It was a really good day!"
As everyone who was there acknowledged, huge credit has to go to BSUK's South East Regional Coach and Club Development Officer Stan Doney for making the whole thing happen.
After helping to run the LFSL last year, Stan had a vision of a greatly expanded league involving men's, women's and co-ed teams, split into two divisions based on talent and experience, but with some players -- especially GB youth team players -- playing in both divisions to get the vital playing time and experience they need before their international competitions.
In Division 2, teams are built around these young GB players; in Division 1, they get to play with more experienced adult players and are forced to raise their game. And they did. Many of them played six games without a break, and if that doesn't raise their experience level, nothing will.
But the sheer number of players who turned out was down to Stan Doney's relentless persistence. If there was an ex-pat somewhere in this country who used to play fastpitch softball, Stan found them -- and as a result, the quality of pitching, even divided among 12 teams, was surprisingly high.
If there was a slowpitch player who had ever given fastpitch a try, or professed a hankering to do so, Stan bombarded them with emails and got them out there.
"In fact," Stan said at the end of the day, "it's a good thing that a fair number of players that I thought were coming pulled out late. Otherwise, we've have had way too many!"
How it works
The 2011 LFSL is built around a structure that at first seems strange, but worked to perfection on May 8.
Division 2, which plays in the morning, consists of six co-ed teams. But there are no restrictions on gender -- the teams can have as many male or female players on the field as they want, and the numbers were quite varied across the different teams. Over the course of the season, which will consist of six playing days, these teams will play each other a number of times. A softer "indoor" ball is used in this division to cater for the many players who are new to the game and the fact that stronger male players may be hitting the ball hard at relatively inexperienced females.
Division 1, which plays in the afternoon, also consists of six teams, but they are all single-sex -- three women's teams and three men's teams -- made up mainly of stronger and more experienced players. On any given day, a women's team will play the other two women's teams and one men's team; while each men's team will play the other two men's teams and one women's team. Normal softballs are used in this division except when men play women; in these games, women's teams have the option of using the softer ball.
DIVISION 1: Hail to the Wolverines
Last year's LFSL had four women's teams and one men's team, and the men hardly lost a game all season.
But things are going to be different in 2011, and the best indication is that an Oxford-based women's team called the Wolverines, who finished bottom of the league last year, are joint top of Division 1 after the first day's play along with the men's team Richings Park Red, both with 3-0 records.
The Wolverines, coached by Joss Thompson and managed by BSF President Stella Ackrell, defeated Richings Park Women 2-1 in a well-played pitcher's duel, enjoyed a comfortable 8-1 win over the London Angels, who have been the leading women's club team in Britain for years, and then hung on for a 4-2 win over the men's team from Berkshire.
The key to the Wolverines' success was the powerful pitching of GB Women's Team Assistant Coach and former French National Team player Celine Lassaigne. But that's how fastpitch works: you have a dominant pitcher, you have enough offense to score a few runs, and you win.
(On the other hand, in Division 2, young GB infielder-outfielder (and occasional pitcher) Kelly Randall threw two wins for her Hove Tuesday team by the simple expedient of throwing the ball up there slowly but accurately, letting the other team hit it, and letting her fielders catch it).
Meanwhile, the men's team Richings Park Red piled up their three wins in a close 4-1 game against London Angels, a 9-5 win over Berkshire and a 6-4 thriller against Richings Park Black.
DIVISION 2: The Chalfont Express
Meanwhile, in co-ed Division 2, the only undefeated team was Chalfont, a late entry to the league from the Chalfont Park slowpitch club in the Windsor and Maidenhead League. They defeated Richings Park 8-2 after the game was close for several innings, clobbered London Angels 2 by a score of 12-5, and then squeaked out a 7-6 win over Nottingham when time ran out and the score reverted after Nottingham had taken a 10-7 league.
The only winless team in Division 2 was Angels 2, which means that competition in the division should be strong throughout the season.
A key group scattered around Division 2 (and Division 1) teams are players from the newly-revived GB Under-19 Men's Team programme. There has been no GB Men's Team at that age level since 2004, but this was another Stan Doney project over the winter, and a powerful group of young players will be going to European Championships this summer and are making a difference on teams throughout the LFSL.
After the first day's play in the LFSL, the standings look like this (W= Women's Team and M = Men's Team):
W - Oxford Wolverines (3-0)
M - Richings Park Red (3-0)
M - Richings Park Black (2-1)
W - London Angels (1-2)
W - Richings Park Women (0-3)
M - Berkshire Men (0-3)
Hove Tuesday (2-1)
East Anglia (2-1)
Richings Park (1-2)
London Angels 2 (0-3)
The league will now take a break until Saturday, June 8 -- though there will be fastpitch action at Richings Park on May 28-29 when the LFSL hosts the London Cup International Fastpitch Tournament, a mainly women's competition featuring teams from Croatia and Denmark, the London Angels and a Richings Park Women's Team, the GB Under-19 Women -- and also the GB Under-19 Men.
Other LFSL dates this year at Richings Park will be Saturday, June 18 and Saturday, July 9. Two final league dates will be arranged in September.
It was a tremendous first day for the league -- and with new players always welcome (Stan Doney will assign them to teams), chances are that word of mouth will bring even more players out on June 8.