In their first time playing on home ground, Homer’s Tsunami softball team swept into Jack Gist Park on Saturday in the team’s first USA Softball U16 (ages 16 and younger) game. Coached by Bill Bell and assistant Hannah Zook, the Tsunamis scored two victories, 15-3 and 23-13, in back-to-back games against Kenai-Soldotna’s newly formed AK Riptide, coached by Bob Frates.
The Tsunami name isn’t new. It dates back to 2007 when it was comprised of players from Anchorage, Kodiak and Homer.
“The first time the Tsunami existed was for a travel team made up of graduating high school seniors going to the Canada Cup in Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) in June 2007,” Bell said. “It was not only a tournament for age levels of players, but also a big tournament for all the national teams, so we got to see U.S.A., Japan, Canada and about seven other national teams play at the same time.”
Tsunami is now made completely of Homer athletes and, sanctioned through USA Softball, is an effort to give softball in Homer a boost.
“Hannah Zook and I are trying to revitalize the interest in softball at the lower levels,” said Bell, who also coaches the Homer High School team. “We have found that many of the players we get as freshmen for the high school program have never played softball or really been exposed to softball in the past.”
Similarly, AK Riptide is a new fast-pitch softball program, also sanctioned through USA Softball. The program includes 23 girls ranging in age from 11-17 years old with opportunities to run a U14 and a U16 team. Saturday’s games were the first time the girls had played on the new team.
“AK Riptide will provide players the opportunity to extend their playing season beyond high school, which is absolutely critical in Alaska since our season is so short,” said Frates, for whom softball is special because of the relationships it creates with umpires, league officials, community, parents and, most importantly, the players. “First year high school players particularly benefit from the additional instruction and playing time.”
Softball is included with volleyball, basketball, track and soccer in middle school physical education curriculum, but to a lesser extent, which is unfortunate according to Bell since softball is a sport requiring a high level of introductory skill for the comfort and safety of the participant at every level.
“In order to be comfortable playing softball, you have to be able to catch a ‘hard’ ball coming at your face, often at a good rate of speed, and for a feeling of satisfaction you have to be able to throw somewhat accurately and with good velocity and also hit a round object out of the air with another round object,” Bell said. “In short, it is a game with built-in frustration and failure … and is replete with stories of balls hitting people in the nose or body.”
Bell and Zook, along with Mary Jo Cambridge of the Alaska Training Room, are developing a program focused completely on softball, offering opportunities to interact with other Alaska teams and develop skills that will benefit the high school program.
“Hannah and I have looked around the state for examples of more vibrant summer programs,” Bell said.
Being sanctioned by USA Softball provides “structure in keeping with college programs, the professional program, the Olympic program and the Junior Olympic program that sponsors huge tournaments all summer long all across the United States,” he said.
As the National Governing Body of softball in the United States, USA Softball regulates competition to insure fairness and equal opportunity for all who play the sport. It is responsible for adopting the sport’s universally accepted rules and has grown the sport to more than 120,000 teams and a membership of more than two million.
An Anchorage team was planning to play against the Tsunami on Saturday, but after choosing to stay in Anchorage due to the Swan Lake fire, AK Riptide filled in. The Tsunami will continue practicing and arranging games against Anchorage and peninsula teams, with an eye toward participating in a state tournament in Fairbanks at the end of July.
Frates has been a Little League softball coach for the past seven years and served as softball coordinator. He also has coached youth baseball, wrestling and football. Having received some financial support and equipment from Twin City American Legion Baseball for AK Riptide, Frates said, “There will be lots of work moving forward arranging games, website development, ordering gear, registering players, etc., but the end goal and focus is always on the players and making sure this opportunity is there for them.”
Cambridge played Division II college softball at Longwood University, coached at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, earned a Masters of Education in Athletic Training and Sports Medicine from the University of Virginia, and opened the Alaska Training Room in Homer in 2012. Multiple sports help develop total body and physical skills of youngsters, but during 10th or 11th grade it is time to narrow the choices, according to Cambridge.
“At that point, all physical, emotional and tactical development should be directed towards one sport,” she said, adding that in Homer there are not enough girls in sports to allow specialization. “We are trying to develop them younger with high level coaching and get more innings in the summer to see which diamonds handle the pressure. It is a fact that the longer girls stay in sport, the more successful they are in life.”
Beginning with T-ball and then softball, Zook grew up in the sport.
“When it was my turn up to bat, I loved when you would hear that crack of the bat when it made contact with the ball and know right then and there if it was a solid hit or not” said Zook, who is going on her fifth year as the Mariner softball assistant coach. She also has served on the Little League board of directors. During Saturday’s games, she coached the Tsunamis while Bell filled in as umpire.
“Softball not only makes you more athletic, but it is a mental challenge that helps strengthen your confidence and instill good qualities,” said Zook, who hopes the USA Softball program will get “young athletes to not only become better athletes, but to know they are valued and to help instill good characteristics in them that will last a lifetime.”
Bell played adult softball for 34 years, coached his son in baseball and his daughter in softball through Little League, and served as a Little League vice president, umpire and field person. In 2003, he began coaching softball at Homer High School and took the team to its first-ever win at state.
“I see the sport as a way of teaching the life skills of resilience, defeat, rebound and recovery,” said Bell, whose passion for the sport is fueled by the difference he’s seen it make on teenage girls struggling with uncertainty and self-confidence. “Softball is built on failure, built on mental focus, built on thinking through a paradigm that changes pitch to pitch. It is also an interesting team sport that is decidedly individual and very obviously showcases an individual’s performance and how they deal with that. All important life skills.”
Increased adult involvement is necessary for making the Homer program succeed. Any adult women wanting to play softball can participate in practices at 6 p.m. Sundays at Jack Gist Park.