ESPN Rise Premier Review
The inaugural ESPN Rise National Championship Tournament, aka Premier Girls Fastpitch, was rated an outstanding success by the college and travel ball coaches, players, parents, umpires and observers.
The tournament drew very positive reviews in every important dimension – from the coaches meeting to the final out.
The initial coaches meeting at the Atrium looked like all the Gold coaches meetings of yore. With a few exceptions, the teams and coaches who have elevated and maintained Junior Olympic softball at its highest level participated at ESPN/Premier. The college and travel ball coaches who talked to SPY were unanimous in praising the high quality of the competition – and those who had attended ASA Gold Nationals in Marietta the week before agreed that Premier had the much stronger draw and a site more conducive to a national championship.
Two travel ball coaches who attended both tournaments said the top four-five teams at Gold would have competed strongly at ESPN/Premier but the balance of the Gold field was not as competitive. College coaches who attended both concurred.
Premier, which operated the tournament under contract to ESPN Rise, the actual owner and sponsor of the tournament, used a combination of teams selected by a panel and teams who earned berths through Premier-sanctioned qualifiers.
Both tournaments were sufficiently diverse to be called national tournaments. Like every 18U national tournament of the last 15 years, California teams were heavily represented in the ESPN highschool division (18U). There were 38 California teams, and 32 teams from 17 other states. At the 16U tournament, there were 29 California teams and 19 teams from 8 other states. (By comparison, the 64 teams at ASA Gold represented 19 states, led by California with 16, Texas with 11; 14 states had only one or two teams entered.) Remarkably, there were just two cancellations in the Premier HS division; every team including the 32 who travelled from other states paid a fee of $1500 which went to ESPN Rise.
The Premier bracket included all but one of the last 10 Gold champions (two are inactive).
As one measure of competitiveness, only eight teams won all three pool games. The So Cal Athletics, the tournament champion, lost a pool game to Killer Bees and were forced into a what if game when they lost the first game in the championship round to Corona Angels 9-3. Texas Impact, who lost in bracket play to the SCA’s, fought their way to the final, winning eleven games, nine in a row in the losers bracket, and defeating the OC Batbusters in the other what if game. Impact outscored opponents 74-28, the widest run differential.
As another measure of competitiveness, 32 teams had a positive run differential; 21 teams held opponents to an average of fewer than three runs per game, with narrow margins of victory the norm. Even the five teams which did not win a game in bracket play were able to score. Thirty four teams won half or more of their games (.500+), and all but 15 won a third or more.
The five teams which did not win a game in bracket also lost all three pool games. Like Boulder, the organizers have the option of not inviting those teams to return (although all had credible records coming to Premier). A diminishing factor in the ASA Gold system is that certain regions award berths with little or no competition, with the usual result that should a top-ranked team lose in the first round it would probably face a lesser team in the first one or two rounds of the losers bracket. Unfortunately, those same weaker ASA teams seem to return to perpetuity.
If there was a damper on competitiveness, it was the absence of the key players who were in Bogota winning the Pan Am Junior World Qualifier. Those who might well have made a difference at Premier included AZ Hotshots ace Dallas Escobedo and teammate Lauren Haeger; Ally Carda and Cheyenne Cordes from Lady Magic, Cheyanne Tarango and four other impact players from the Worth Firecrackers: Lauren Chamberlain, Kylee Lahners, Nyree White, and Hallie Wilson; Amber Freeman and Destinee Martinez from Corona Angels Tyson; Madison Shipman, Choppers; Chelsea Goodacre, CA Fury; Shelby Pendley, NM Sundancers.
Their absence highlights the continuing problem of poor scheduling, which directly reflects the lack of communications between USA Softball and ISF president Don Porter.
All parties told SPY that the competition was more balanced in part because of the absence of returning college players. A large number of current and former college players were on hand to support their former teams, underscoring the ASA failure to create a viable 23-U program.
Their exclusion allowed close focus on a wide range of player classes – and many were quite impressive. There were obvious stars like SCA’s winning pitcher Kayla Massey, enroute to Iowa, and her slugging teammate, Jenna Kelly, who has committed to North Carolina. Texas will be an even greater threat in the Big 12 when Impact pitcher Rachel Fox, the anchor in Impact’s run-up through the losers bracket, joins Blair Luna in the Longhorn rotation. Indeed, a number of players were leaving immediately for their colleges. Still others showed the promise which ensures great tournaments to come. So Cal A’s shortstop Alexis Mercado is a 2013, and catcher Aubrey Munro doesn’t become a Gator until 2012. Nancy Bowling has verballed to Arizona; she’s a 2012. Her Batbuster teammate 3rd base Katiyana Mauga is a 2013. OCB’s catcher Brittany Moeai will head to UCLA – in 2012. Jessica Hall did the heavy lifting from the circle for Tyson’s Angels, and reports right away to UCLA, while her catcher, Taylor Edwards is on her way to Nebraska. Georgia Elite loses pitcher Lindsay Anderson to Georgia Tech; this squad was heavy with 2010 players and will rebuild. Pitcher and slugger Lauren Walker gives NJ Inferno another year. Corrin Genovese’s years of anchoring the corner for NJ Intensity are over; she is now a Missouri Tiger. Renegade shortstop Kellie Fox is off to UCLA. Impact catcher Nicole Morgan joins her predecessor, Megan May, at Texas A&M. All the Firecrackers who went to Bogota return. Ally Carda and Cheyene Cordes have another year with Lady Magic before taking their talents to the Pac 10 (UCLA and Cal). Lauren Haeger (Florida) can pitch another year for AZ Hotshots but Dallas Escobedo is now at Arizona State. The two top hitters, Puma Hannah Winter is a 2012, and Firecracker Janelle Lindvall is a 2011.
Over at Barber, Doug Myers champion Batbusters team is replete with outstanding players, some of whom don’t graduate until 2014, like slugger Madeline Jelenicki and infielder Brianna Taulalafua. Speedster Heidi Velk 2011 and all-around star Amanda Perez 2012 are among the bright younger stars who will come back next year.
Some college coaches contend that the 2010 class was relatively thin, but that the 2011-12 classes have some real stars. The ESPN Rise/Premier tournament revealed a bright future.
(To be sure, there were individual stars at Marietta, like East Cobb Bullets winning pitcher Lori Spingola, whom we have watched for years, Rachel Gillen of Gold Coast Hurricanes, the Fagan sisters from Team North Florida. SPY reported the exploits of those and other players in game reports at that time.)
Tournament Communications and Scorekeeping
ESPN and PGF sited a pavilion near Field 1 at HB and also at Fountain Valley. Tournament officials were on constant call, and they maintained an up-to-the-game scoreboard at each field. Teams and college coaches knew winners/losers, and where each team would be at a given hour. More, the heart of the system was Iscore, a central online facility which had all the features of Gametracker and more, with up to the minute statistics on teams and individuals. Scorekeepers were posted at every field, equipped with an IPad which posted all the vital statistics during a game as well as the outcome. (A perennial criticism of Oklahoma City was that the fields at Mustang were in poor condition and game reports were often quite late). Iscore is much more sophisticated than Gametracker, nor did we hear of the constant broken links with Gametracker. (ASA benefitted from having ASA communications director Julie Bartel on hand to direct the flow of information at Marietta.) Throughout the week, we watched scores of volunteers under aegis of ESPN and PGF at the command center and at every game; this tournament required a lot of planning and preparation, primarily by PGF as the contractor. Kudoes all around.
As the name implies, the ESPN Rise tournament had a bonus – a televised finale from the broadcast booth at Bill Barber Park’s large stadium. SPY was told the quality was quite good, as expected. (ASA encountered some of the same problems with video streaming on computers which have bedeviled NPF; it’s the system, not the organization.) We were impressed watching the score of technicians working throughout the afternoon to set up for a single broadcast. Garland Cooper and the lead broadcaster were a welcome change, some viewers reported, over some ESPN crews who do college games and tend to over-talk them.
Umpiring and Rules
Important to note that Premier used NCAA-umpires, not ASA. Reportedly, ASA umpires were denied to the tournament. Given that Premier was officially classified as a highschool-level tournament, the umpires enforced NHSF rules (with the exception of the HS step-back rule). SPY talked frequently to the umpires; to our knowledge, illegal pitches were called twice. There were close calls, and, to our perception, the umpires were quite willing to explain their calls.
College Coaches and Recruiting
College coaches were given two books (one more of a commemorative program with photos) which contained the vital data on each team. We noted a sizable number of unsigned 2010 and 2011 players. College coaches said they especially appreciated the guidebook and electronic communications, and also the more than adequate seating, and the ease of transition from HB to Fountain Valley. Those who had also attended ASA Gold, in person or through another member of the coaching staff, professed that the quality of play was higher at Premier. Travel ball coaches should be given more information on opponents, like the college coaches book.
Crowds were generous all week at both facilities – and at Barber Park where all the 16U games were held. An estimated 1,000 people watched the championship game between So Cal Athletics and Texas Impact. As winning coach Bruce Richardson said, there was never a thousand people remaining for the Gold final at Oklahoma City (although a local source said the final crowd at Marietta was about 600.) No doubt the Premier number was boosted by having a California team in the final, but there have been California teams in almost every final for 15 years. This year, many teams did not have to dash to the airport. More, we saw a sizeable number of athletes and coaches from other teams who stayed to watch the final. To be sure, there was a strong contingent from Texas on hand for the finale. Ending on Saturday rather than Sunday was a benefit to all.
Fields at all three facilities were continuously maintained, with foul lines and boxes redrawn, a crucial element in at least one game.
ESPN Rise and PGF drew rave reviews from players and parents for the opening ceremonies. The teams paraded down Main Street in colorful Huntington Beach, while parents and observers sat, ate and drank at the numerous sidewalk cafes. Then, a crowd of about 5,000 walked to a waterfront arena, few speeches, all short, followed by a very entertaining luau, after which the players could stroll the beach and (all important to the girls) shop at the stores which ranged from the fashionable to souvenir shops.
On the margins of Moscow’s Red Square sits the Hotel Rossikaya (Russia), one of the towering edifices created by Stalin and unaffectionately known as “Stalin’s Seven Sisters.” When one enters the hotel lobby, the smells of urine wafting from the public urinals would stupefy a goat. The bathrooms at Huntington Beach are at worst third (the bathrooms at the practice fields in Taiwan couldn’t be cleaned with C-4). Most jails have long since abandoned the unsanitary metal toilets and installed seats. A first class tournament deserves better. Indeed, the rest rooms at most stadiums across the country are inadequate, compelling long lines especially for women. And few are maintained over a weekend.
While much of the focus by ASA (and others) was on PGF founders Gary Haning and Dan Hay, the fact is that PGF utilizes a board of advisors, including Jim Barsalona, Team New Jersey; Jonathan Lampl, Texas Impact; Bill Conroy, Beverly Bandits; Don Minard, Worth Firecrackers; Tommy Orndorff, Shamrocks; Bruce Richardson, So Cal Athletics. Blair Ota, Irvine Sting, is closely involved (field permits); his wife Paula managed the concession stand at Barber. Bret Denio was instrumental in scorekeeping management and other volunteer activities. Many other volunteers played key roles.
SPY and numerous travel ball coaches have urged ASA for years to appoint a travel ball advisory group. SPY even proposed such a group on the floor of the ASA Council; it was rejected. There was a group composed of these and other travel ball notables like Dave Hazzard and Pam Newton, formed by former national teams director Ralph Weekly. They met twice; ASA largely ignored their recommendations. The group was disbanded. SPY believes that, had there been close consultation with the travel ball community in 2009, there might not have been a Premier Girls Fastpitch tournament. Now, the advisors intend to continue.
Both ESPN Rise and PGF officials were buoyed by the success of this initial venture, and said they would host a similar function next year at the same sites. Ironically, the calendar shows that their second tournament would fall the same week as the projected ASA 2011 Gold tournament.
How this will play out is uncertain. The certainty is that ASA has competition. The question is whether an ASA title still has sufficient cachet to outweigh other considerations. For certain, ESPN and ESPN Rise intend to be major players in events of their choosing. Once having broken away from the ASA monopoly, will these travel ball teams come back to ASA?
Plans are well underway for a major independent tournament at Walt Disney World this fall (the facility is owned by ESPN; ESPN Rise is reportedly not involved). Two coaches who were at Marietta said that they will only play ESPN/Premier in 2011. Many of the top teams did not even compete at the ASA regional level. Triple Crown Sports, USSSA, NSA, and Pony all have large tournaments and are reliably reported to be considering how they might attract more top teams at the 16 & 18 levels. College coaches are placing more emphasis on exposure tournaments, and removing college players from 18U competition makes those tournaments (and both nationals) more attractive recruiting events.
SPY only spent one afternoon at Barber, watching the 16s complete bracket play and stayed for their finale (after the HS division championship). Yet that time was sufficient to hear a cacophony of complaints about ASA’s 16U tournament, principally that the field was allowed to expand to 160 teams. Much too large, and all about money were among the complaints. By contrast, the ESPN Rise 16U tournament had 48 teams – and a flood of college coaches.
ASA executive director Ron Radigonda had suggested SPY compare the ASA and Premier tournaments. SPY could not attend Marietta; therefore, travel ball and college coaches who did attend Gold were asked for their opinions, which form the basis for the comments above. Thanks to Gametracker (and Mrs Bartel), SPY reported every game from Marietta.