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MailTribune.com
  • MEN'S FASTPITCH SOFTBALL

    Eye-opening Experience

    Fastpitch softball exhibition featuring USA Softball junior men's national team offers glimpse at lost sport in Rogue Valley
  • In town for her own softball state tournament, Makenna Slavenski found her experience at Fagone Field on Thursday to be an eye-opener — and it wasn't just because there were so many cute high school boys out there playing her sport.
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  • In town for her own softball state tournament, Makenna Slavenski found her experience at Fagone Field on Thursday to be an eye-opener — and it wasn't just because there were so many cute high school boys out there playing her sport.
    The 14-year-old pitcher/first baseman from Lebanon joined a host of spectators to take in a rarity here in Medford, or almost anywhere else beyond the Midwest for that matter, thanks to a stop in town by the touring USA Softball junior men's national fastpitch team.
    The stop here marked the third in a five-city tour the team of 16- to 19-year-olds is making as it heads to the International Softball Federation junior men's world championships July 11-20 in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada.
    It also marked the first time in at least 25 years that Fagone Field was buzzing with men of all ages playing fastpitch softball, and definitely brought about a welcome sight for onlookers like Slavenski.
    "It was really interesting because in our area boys think that the girls sports are totally off limits," she said, "but to (the USA players) it seemed like it's what they do and what they like. We were reading about them in the program and how they found softball just as interesting as we do and it's really good that we can relate to that."
    Slavenski was one of many on hand that posed for pictures with the visiting players between the scheduled doubleheader against a pair of men's fastpitch teams based out of Grants Pass, the Southern Oregon Bandits and Southern Oregon Young Guns.
    She will be part of a Valley Xtreme team that will take part in the 14U B ASA state tournament running today through Sunday at U.S. Cellular Community Park and North Medford High, and left Fagone Field impressed by what she saw and hopeful that it would only serve to further the sport of softball across both genders.
    "I think it's really important to see something like this because it is a fun sport and if people just give it a chance then they'll really like it," said Slavenski. "I definitely think softball in general would be bigger if more guys played because in sports it's mainly the male audience that they try to target. With the speed of the game and how fast they are and how far they can hit, it could get a lot bigger."
    That's certainly the hope of event chairperson Larry Binney, who is a fastpitch icon in the Rogue Valley and worked diligently to help prepare Fagone Field for its first big night of fastpitch softball in about six years.
    "I played 29 years right here and it was the most fun I ever had playing sports," Binney said of his fastpitch playing days. "This is such a fast game and a fun game. I'm just tickled the USA guys were passing through and I hope it revives things here in Southern Oregon."
    "This was good for men's fastpitch and I hope there's a comeback," he added. "It's a great sport for girls but it's also a great sport for men and young men as well."
    There no longer is a fastpitch league in the area, but teams like the Bandits and Young Guns are stocked with local players who compete in tournaments around the state and only really get to enjoy a home crowd during Boatnik.
    Despite the difference in ages between the teams — the Southern Oregon teams likely doubled the average age of the USA Softball junior men's contingent — the level of play was pretty equal.
    The Bandits built a 7-2 lead through three innings on their younger peers before holding on for a 10-7 victory in the opener. In the nightcap, however, 19-year-old pitcher Phillip Zimmerman of New Holland, Pa., struck out 19 and allowed one hit — by Scott McGowan — to lead the U.S. squad to a 5-0 victory over the Young Guns.
    "You feel ancient out there when these kids are 19 or younger and real fast," said Bandits first baseman Nate Olson, who was 3-for-4 with one run and two RBIs in the opener, "but it was fun to get out there and play with the guys and play against a team that's going to represent us (in the world championships)."
    The Bandits' victory, which included three solid innings of pitching by University of Oregon softball coach Mike White, caught more than a few by surprise at Fagone.
    "I think they thought the U.S. team was just going to dominate," Binney said of the reactions heard in the grandstands. "Some of these young girls have never seen men's fastpitch and I think they were surprised at how good some of the older fellas still play ball. It was a great contrast and an interesting game."
    For the Bandits, McGowan was 2-for-3 with two runs and three RBIs, former Grants Pass High baseball coach Stacey Morgan supplied a key two-run single in the third and Zach Morgan scored twice and made a sensational diving grab to deny the visitors with two runners on in the sixth. Kevin Ray also was 2-for-3 with two runs for the Bandits, who were outhit 11-10.
    Three strong innings of relief by Jim Miles were followed by a seventh-inning appearance from 75-year-old fastpitch mainstay Mike Trotter, who has been pitching since he was 15. Trotter nearly was able to pitch a scoreless final frame but a dropped fly ball led to a run, and then pinch-hitter Tyler Bouley cranked a two-run home run well over the right field fence to make things interesting.
    Blaine Milhelm singled for his third hit of the game and Tyler Stoffel walked to bring the tying run to the plate, but Trotter buckled down to induce a pop fly to the shortstop Ray for the game-ender.
    "We like to make it exciting, that's all for the fans," joked Olson.
    Thursday's twin bill marked the third straight day of hopping on a bus and playing for the U.S. squad, but the good-natured group offered no excuses for the loss. They play in Salem later today and finish their tour in Fife, Wash., on Sunday.
    "They hit when they needed to and we didn't hit at all with runners in scoring position, and that's how it's going to turn out," said Stoffel, who showed his blazing speed with a triple, double and the ability to score from second on a caught fly ball in right-center field.
    For someone like Stoffel, who hails from North Mankato, Minn., the game of fastpitch softball is relatively new but one he's definitely enjoying his first year at it before returning to play baseball for Minnesota State University-Mankato in the fall.
    "I'm learning as I go," admitted the 17-year-old shortstop. "I play a lot of baseball and there's some similarities but there's a lot of differences, too, with the pitching that I'm starting to pick up."
    "It's a lot faster paced and it's harder to hit," Stoffel added. "There's a lot more skill to it than baseball. I hate admitting it, but there's a lot more skill involved in softball than there is in baseball."
    The 17-year-old Milhelm, who was a popular target of photo-seekers, grew up watching his dad play fastpitch softball for 25 years and his older brother for seven more in Michigan. He also plays high school baseball in the spring but prefers softball in the summer.
    "It's a lot more fun than baseball," he said. "It's so much quicker and more difficult. I like it a lot more."
    Binney said the same reactions could be found among the local teenage boys if they just decided to give it a chance and help revive the sport here.
    "There's lots of kids right out of high school that would love to play but you have to have pitching for this game to survive," he said. "If we can get some young people pitching — it just takes a little bit of work — but there's great athletes that play baseball right here in Southern Oregon that don't go on to play college baseball who could be playing this and having a great time."
    Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry
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