Midwest USSSA Expands Women’s Divisions at Tournaments to Meet Rising Demand

Over the past few decades, the sport of women’s softball has grown exponentially. The number of youth recreational and competitive leagues are on the rise. More than 14,000 high schools in the United States field softball teams. At the college level, the number of NCAA Division I schools sponsoring the sport has grown from 143 in 1982 to 296 in 2018.

And it’s not just participation that has seen increased interest. The Women’s College World Series in 2017 on ESPN averaged a total television and online-streaming audience of 1.72 million viewers over the course of two nights. The venue for the Women’s CWS held 2,000 people in 1999; today, the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma holds more than 9,000 fans—and plans are in place to increase the seating capacity to 13,000 by 2020.

Highlighting all of that interest at top competitive levels begs one question: what’s happening in the local, women’s adult-league softball scene?

“Two years ago, women’s softball wasn’t a thing around here,” said Tonia Turner, who has been active with adult slowpitch softball leagues since 2009. Sure, there were plenty of co-ed tournaments to choose from—but that didn’t hold the same appeal as playing against other women. Turner started talking with other softball players in the area, and she received feedback that suggested an unmet need for women’s tournaments in Kansas City.

“They were over co-ed,” said Turner. “In co-ed, there’s always going to be drama. With guys, it tends to become a game of who can hit the most home runs. I think that might be why co-ed participation is declining.”

Kelly McLemore, state director for Midwest USSSA (United States Speciality Sports Association), confirmed that adult co-ed numbers are experiencing a slight downturn. She is responsible for organizing adult slowpitch softball tournaments year-round, all across the Midwest—from Hays, Kansas to St. Louis, Missouri.

“Co-ed is a smaller division, and tends to be mostly men,” she said.

Midwest USSSA hadn’t hosted a women’s division in its tournaments since 2008. But when co-ed numbers started to dip while interest in women’s leagues was on the rise, Turner reached out to McLemore and suggested it might be time to make women’s tournaments happen again.

Jacque Winter takes a swing at softball field
Jacque Winter takes a swing.

Women’s Leagues in Kansas City

It’s not that there wasn’t anywhere for women to play in Kansas City. Aside from co-ed leagues, several organizations and city parks-and-recreation departments host women’s recreational slowpitch leagues. The Heart of America Softball League (HASL), established in 1977, is the oldest. Its women’s division plays on Sunday nights at Mid-America Softball Complex in Shawnee, Kansas and is separated into B/C and D/E divisions. In 2018, a total of ten teams participated for nine weeks, from April through July.

On the east side of town, Blue Springs Parks and Recreation has hosted a Tuesday-night women’s league since about 2007, said Recreation Supervisor James Farris. Leagues run spring through fall, and they average eight women’s teams. Also, Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation holds a spring league for women over 40 years old on Monday nights.

Closer to downtown Kansas City, West Side Softball hosts a women’s league at Penn Valley Park on Sundays. Their 16-week schedule is made up of six teams in 2018.

While those leagues are all slowpitch, there is also a recreational fastpitch softball option. The Independence Girls Softball Association (IGSA), which has been around for about 40 years in Independence, Missouri, grew as a recreational instructional league for girls 18 and under. Its mission is to provide an encouraging environment for girls to learn the game and to have the opportunity to develop into competitive players. Recognizing that the passion for softball doesn’t go away after college graduation, the organization launched a recreational league for women 18 and over, with both spring and fall leagues that play for about six weeks each.

“It used to be, when you got to be 19 years old, there was nowhere to play fastpitch anymore,” said Susan Tate, IGSA president. “That’s why we came up with this league—so they can keep playing as long as they want to.”

Tate said the league draws women of all ages. “We have some 40-year-olds who came back to have some fun, and we have a team that all played NCAA Division I softball and want to win every game. There’s a variation in levels, and sometimes it can be painful to play that one team,” she chuckled, “but everyone gets to play the game they love. That’s the whole point.”

Creating New Opportunities

When you consider her background, it’s not surprising that Tonia Turner was the catalyst who got women’s tournaments going again in Kansas City. She grew up around the sport, playing her first games at age six. Her dad, nicknamed “Big T,” played adult-league softball. “Teams used to fight over him because every time he got up to bat, they already knew it was going over the fence,” said Turner.

Mallory Stanfill-Miller wearing catcher mask and softball glove
Mallory Stanfill-Miller is pitcher and coach for the KC Skers.

Turner, who is known in the softball community as “TT,” played club ball as a catcher; lettered and started all four years of high school; played at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne on a softball scholarship; and was named NAIA All-Academic and Notable Player of the Week. “I even got offered to play for USA in Germany my junior year of college, but I had to turn it down at the time,” said Turner.

Perhaps it was that competitive nature that drove Turner to dig in and work to make women’s tournaments happen in the Kansas City area. With the green light from Midwest USSSA’s McLemore, Turner starting by looking for teams that were already organized and competitive. In USSSA slowpitch play, Class B and C tends to be competitive and travels more often to play. Class D and E teams are usually leisure-oriented and less likely to travel. Turner collaborated with a few area B teams to start gathering players. She drilled the social media networks. She reached out to women who were already playing co-ed but didn’t know where to start with forming an all-women’s team.

“I knew their strengths and weaknesses, so I took down a list of people who were interested and put them on teams together,” said Turner. “They started finding friends who also wanted to play, and then they started forming their own teams.”

Once she had momentum, and players became aware of the women’s divisions in the tournaments, the project took on a life of its own. “Before, I don’t think anyone had ever taken the effort to dig into it,” said Turner. “A lot of the girls, I’ve found, didn’t even know about these tournaments. I met them by picking up games and subbing. Then I took point on it and started trying to get things organized.”

For each event, Turner focuses on obtainable milestones.

“My goal is to get at least ten teams to each tournament,” said Turner. Going into her first full season of developing these events, she has far surpassed that goal. At the March 2018 Shamrock Slam, Turner attracted 22 women’s teams from Nebraska, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

“When I first started, I was only seeing about five or eight teams,” said Turner. “Since then, I have doubled that to between 14 and 16 teams. The support has been fabulous.”

Staying Closer to Home

As a Kansas City-area competitive slowpitch softball team, the KC Skers have grown accustomed to life on the road. The 12-person team got its start in 2010 and has moved up through the ranks from USSSA Class D to Class B.

“It’s very competitive once you get into those upper levels,” said KC Skers infielder Jacque Winter. “There’s not a lot of difference between Class B and the Conference level…”

“Except they can afford to pay their players at the Conference level,” finished Mallory Stanfill-Miller, pitcher and coach for KC Skers. “They have big major sponsors paying for them to fly, and instead we’re doing fundraisers. That’s a big difference there.”

Mallory Stanfill-Miller (left), Jacque Winter (right), and the rest of their teammates on the KC Skers must organize fundraisers to help pay for uniforms, equipment, and travel.

But the fundraising is necessary to keep the team at the major tournaments that take place all over the country. In a typical season, the KC Skers travel to Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Las Vegas. “It just depends on where we can find a tournament, and where we can find the interest (among our teammates),” added Winter.

Despite being their home town, Kansas City hasn’t been a typical stop on the KC Skers schedule due to the paucity of tournaments in the area. But over the last two years, that’s changed.

“They’ve always tried to have women’s tournaments, but there just weren’t enough women’s teams,” said Stanfill-Miller. “We may have had two or three women’s teams—one good one, and a couple that just threw together to play. But now you’re seeing more organized teams, teams that can play at a higher level, but also getting the lower teams in to play. That way, you can get everyone involved, and it’s nice for once. It hadn’t been like that before.”

What’s changed?

“I think organizers are seeing that there’s actually a push for women’s programs,” said Winter. “That’s the big thing. We’re starting to see a lot more teams that are coming from outside Kansas City to play here, and that’s helping a lot.”

The availability of more tournaments in the Kansas City area might mean a few more weekends spent closer to home, and the possibility of finding new competition.

“We try to go where where’s going to be new competition,” said Winter. “Because we want to gauge our talent at every level we can, against different teams. It’s nice to see where we’re at, compared to people all across the country.”

About the Author

Kristi Mayo is the editor of REC Midwest.

All photos by Rick Mayo / Mile 90 Photography