Elite softball teams welcome challenge at NSA world series

Contact Reporterkholtzman@vagazette.com

An hour before the 9 a.m. first pitch for his team's 16-and-under game Friday at Kiwanis Park, Line Drive Express Softball Club coach Doug Hill glanced across the field at his team's opponent, the Illiana Dream Seams, on day five of the National Softball Association Class A Eastern World Series.

Hill's Gold squad hails from Midland in Central Michigan and the Dream Seams from Martinsville in Eastern Illinois. All Hill knew about the Dream Seams is what he could see through the fence: a team beginning its warmups wearing an ensemble with splashes of black, red and yellow similar to the University of Maryland's often bold getups. The night before, he was not even sure which state they were from. Hill said it is his superstition to not get wrapped up in scouting reports during massive tournaments like these, with 20 teams in their age group and more than 85 overall from 10 different states.

That is part of the fun. That is part of the reason why many of the teams including Hill's group, donning Central Michigan University's burgundy and gold colors, visited the tournament that held games Monday-Friday at Kiwanis, and Quarterpath parks as well as Stoney Run Athletic Complex in Newport News.

After running into the same teams in regular weekend tournaments, a change of scenery and exposure to different philosophies and coaching styles makes events like these attractive for some teams, even to the ones that drove more than 12 hours like Hill's.

"It's really immaterial what they're doing," Hill said. "I always tell them to do our work and don't worry about theirs."

If that sounds at all ruthless, it is because Line Drive Express is used to winning. Hill, who owns the club, is a NSA hall of famer having coached the sport the last 27 years. Prior to that, he played football at Northwood University in Midland and semi-professional softball.

Line Drive Express had 13 state championships and three NSA world series titles to its name entering Friday's competition, when it needed to win five games to take another title back to Michigan. The club had only needed to finish first or second in at least one qualifier to secure a spot in the world series field; but it won four separate qualifying tournaments for good measure.

All but two of Hill's players are committed to play in college including his daughter, Bailey, who said staying pumped up is vital in tourneys like these that are made even more grueling by the extreme heat that accompanied this one.

The dugouts of the Line Drive Express and Dream Seams were blaring music Friday morning before most folks in Williamsburg had ventured out to work.

"When I go out there, I always know I have to give it my all even if I'm dead," said Line Drive Express pitcher Faith Barden, a Western Michigan University recruit. "And I always have the defense behind me to be able to back me up."

Line Drive Express was fortunate to make it to Friday after a tough win Thursday night over Chesapeake's Elite Fastpitch, which had to survive four games on Thursday, one more than Line Drive Express.

The Chesapeake team's exit left the Blue Ridge Sudden Impact the only team from Virginia still standing in the bracket.

Lynch Station, south of Lynchburg, is home for Sudden Impact, which took on the Central Illinois Cyclones in game one on Friday.

New York teams from Long Island and West Seneca rounded out the 16-and-under teams that made it to Friday.

Sudden Impact has traveled as far away as Las Vegas for NSA world series tournaments but set its sights on the Williamsburg tournament because they wanted to play in their home state.

Sudden Impact might have been the defacto home team by Friday but Virginia license plates were outnumbered by ones from Michigan and Illinois in the Kiwanis parking lot.

The Cyclones came from Peoria, having qualified in two previous tournaments including the Illinois NSA event.

"The NSA folks here at Williamsburg have been excellent," said Cyclones manager Aaron Barrington. "They treated us well. We got to go to Busch Gardens and do some things we don't get to do in Illinois."

As Barrington and tournament site director Scott Hinders each noted, the Eastern World Series is the big and final tournament of the season for most of the teams. A few of the Cyclones will go on to play for colleges, Barrington said, while others will choose their post-secondary schools of choice solely for educational reasons, meaning competitive softball at this level ended for them in Williamsburg.

Line Drive Express started its season in November before moving indoors for the winter. While not quite a vacation, the Eastern World Series provided the club a chance to enjoy the conclusion of long travel campaign.

"These guys are here because they earned it," Hill said. "That's what I enjoy about this sport. This is their payback for all the hard work."

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

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