A major shift has occurred in regional travel ball at the 16U-18U level in the past five years.
The Old Norm It was the 12U season (2014) that made me wonder if the tournaments would one day be different. Back then, the travel softball world for me, as a newer coach, was very small. Most teams in our region at all age groups followed the same pattern: (1) compete in 7-10 weekend tourneys a summer, (2) choose a big end-of-season Nationals experience, (usually in Ocean City MD or Loudoun County VA) and (3) expect to pay roughly $50-$75 more per tourney than last year. Fastpitch inflation must have been due to the increasing number of teams and excited parents in the region. We had choices of USSSA, PONY, NSA, and few ASA sanctioned events. Parents loved the USSSA ("u-trip") website best because it held the most information and was easiest to use. We checked our power rankings weekly if we played lots of USSSA tourneys. Life was simple.
First Sniffs As any aspiring coach would do, I began talking to experienced coaches at the upper levels to learn as much as possible about the levels at which I may someday coach. I remember distinctly many of them complaining about teams "stealing" their players. These teams represented a different model than what we saw in our typical circuit. They complained of showcase teams that poached talented players with aggressive goals of playing college ball. These vultures represented a "thin and hollow" version of the game we've grown to love, said many veteran coaches. This was a different world and I was intrigued. I empathized with coaches who lost players, but wondered if showcases were simply an evolution of what we were currently doing in travel ball.
Did college coaches attend these showcase events by the dozens and would these clipboard-carrying folks actually interrupt game-play to see a certain player at a different position or slot in the batting order? Was this the big leagues to which tournament softball aspired? Showcase ball was vilified for several seasons at meetings and in conversation circles. It reminded me of when I coached rec ball and the few tournament teams allowed to compete in our league would always blow our doors off, so we naturally whined about fairness and sportsmanship, and of course, "what it was doing to the game."
Ch-ch-changes Between 12u and today a long blurry season happened in which my players grew into competitive softball players admiring online swing videos and pitching critiques. They grew into zany yet mature young women who balanced the rigors of crazy summers with social lives, jobs, and family events. They became serious athletes. Somehow during the blur, tournaments got more serious as well. We jumped from the local Sat-Sun, 4-game minimum tournaments within an hour's drive to the 3-day to 5-day events that average over $1200 each. Many of these events boast their college coach attendance from last year with the hope of your registration fees mailed in for a shot at a longer coach list this year. This "fishing hole" approach somehow replaced the old 12U/14U desire to win the tournament. We found ourselves pre-scheduled on several days of "pool play" with not a bracket in sight. "Just play" was the motto and "be seen" was the goal.
I remember not loving my first showcase season... Do I keep the lineups the same? Do I get that player more innings since a D1 coach is supposedly coming today? Do we pitch all our arms? Do I hold up runners or look to prevent injury? We should bunt here for sure...wait, do they want to see swings instead? Wait, why are there no coaches here? This tournament cost $1100! Is this the field they want us to play on? THESE are showcase umpires? Why are the coaches crawling over each other at the baseball field over there and not here?
Be cool, act like this isn't your first time at showcase, Tim. There's two coaches watching our game. They are coming this way, don't be stupid. Just another game. Nice to meet you...oh, man, I didn't tell them that she hit a dinger in the first game! Should I have offered more info? Did I play it too cool? She was scary, did I seem intimidated? What did I do with her business card?
Adapt and Overcome Eventually, I stopped being a spaz and just focused on the players. Seems like that is always a winning philosophy. I did notice one thing, just as I see parents get "taken" every tryout season, I am seeing tournament hosts "taking" coaches every summer. We coaches are ripe for the picking too. We promise parents, players, and ourselves to develop players and put them in front of coaches if the team talent naturally deserves it. The tournaments know this and love to take our teams' money. Some of the best area tourneys are now providing a bracket on Sunday, (good work) and providing good coach-player opportunities. But there is this second tier that is dangerously fraudulent. Acquire fields and umps, host the tourney, but don't call yourself a showcase because you've invited 300 coaches in an email blast. First timers at this level end up signing up for at least two or three of these waists-of-time. Player-invited college coaches are seen providing the illusion of a showcase and it's all too late anyway because they already have your dough.
Twilight Years Beyond the jump to showcase ball, the jump to broken dreams comes with it. What happened to the team full of 14U players that all wanted to play college softball? The jump changes players, it makes them think. The jump changes parents too. Parents naturally become more focused upon their daughter saying goodbye to the cupcake-bringing, "go team"-yelling supporters they once were. Coaches even erode. The 18U coach remembers a time when their young players bought-in and lived and breathed the sport. Players once held on their every word and thirsted for more instruction as they saw themselves improving and won on weekends. Nearing the showcase phase, things do change. The true lovers of the game still stay driven, and arguably become the batteries in the team machine. But many begin to slow and possibly go through the motions for dad, mom, their teammates, or for a lack of seeming disloyal. With sooooooo many teams in softball, it is rare to have a team of driven "batteries" throughout the lineup. I have been very fortunate to see a few good years of teams with driven players, supportive parents, and committed coaches despite the natural phenomenon that comes with time and "the Jump".
When it's all over, you'll remember the car rides more than the games." -a wise coach.