Sunday’s date was circled on Rick Fritz’ team calendar for nearly one year.
Fritz and his 14-under girls softball team, the Snohomish County Express ’94, won the National Softball Association (NSA) state championship in their age bracket for the past two years. Now, the team has the opportunity to showcase its talents in the NSA Western World Series next week in Snohomish County.
The regional championship tournament for girls ages 9-18 returns Sunday to Snohomish County for the third time in the past six years. It kicks off with a 5 p.m. opening ceremony at Everett Memorial Stadium, where teams will trade pins, parade around the field and listen to guest speaker Heather Tarr, head coach of the national champion University of Washington softball team. The ceremony is free and open to the public
“It’s the pin trading, the opening ceremonies, the walking into the stadium and throwing things to the crowd (that is special for the teams),” Fritz said. “It’s the event for the girls as much as playing ball.”
Pool play begins Monday in the 80-team tournament, which features seven age brackets and teams from northern and southern California, Nevada, Washington and British Columbia. Each team has two pool games before heading to the double-elimination bracket. Bracket play for the 10-under and 16-under teams starts Tuesday, with the larger 12A/B, 14A/B and 18-under brackets scheduled to start bracket games on Wednesday. Tuesday also features a home run derby from 6-8 p.m. at Kasch Park in Everett.
The games are spread throughout Snohomish County — at Marsyville-Pilchuck High School, Sky River Park in Monroe and Phil Johnson ballfields and Kasch Park in Everett.
Snohomish County found success hosting the tournament in 2004 and again in 2006. “It was such a huge success when we had it here before,” said Steve Jensen, the NSA Washington state director.
The 2004 tournament brought in 160 teams; 2006 saw 174 teams and, when combined, the events injected $6.7 million into the local economy, according to Tammy Dunn, the sports marketing manager for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. The sluggish economy is to blame for the decrease in the number of teams in this year’s tournament, especially the number of out-of-state squads.
Jensen said that travel, lodging and food costs for an entire softball team for a week-long event puts a tremendous strain on people’s already pinched pocketbooks.
“With a sports event and a national tournament … they’ll kick it off, play and crown a champion. … It’s a bright side that helps when we’re in bad economic times,” Dunn said, adding that the tournament expects to see $1.7 million flow into the county. “We’re excited to have them back.”
Fritz and the Snohomish County Express ’94 team is excited to have the tournament back in state as well. In the 2006 tournament, playing in the 12-under bracket, the team placed fifth.
“It was a great experience,” Fritz said, adding that the ‘06 Western World Series fifth-place trophy is so special that it is one of the few he keeps in his personal collection. “I was so proud of the girls.”
Now older and more seasoned, Express ’94 is one of the bracket favorites in the competitive 14-under group. “The 14-under is loaded,” Jensen said.
“I told Steve (Jensen) that it’d be nice to make a run at it (the championship),” Fritz said.
The Express ’94, based in Marysville, draws exclusively from north Everett and farther up Interstate 5 to maintain chemistry, Fritz said. Many of the girls have played together for six years and all but three concluded their high school freshman seasons playing varsity for their respective schools. Some familiar names include Everett High School’s Lauren Kesterson (All-Wesco First team) and Chloe Kesterson (All-Wesco Honorable Mention) and Seagulls’ teammate Lexi Levin (All-Wesco Honorable Mention). The team also has players from Marysville-Pilchuck, Stanwood and Sedro-Woolley high schools.
“They’re one of the better teams in the state that I’ve seen play in NSA,” Jensen said.
There will be a number of familiar faces for in-state teams as 58 of the 80 teams in this year’s Western World Series hail from Washington, with 26 from Snohomish County and two teams from Skagit County.
In order to qualify for the tournament, teams first had to come through regional qualifying tournaments to reach the state tournament. Qualifying for the state tournament also meant entry into the Western World Series.
“There’s a ton of good teams, local teams,” Fritz, a coach of nine years, said.
Tournament brackets, game schedules and results will be posted on the NSA tournament Web site, www.nsayouthwws.com.