With the high school spring fastpitch softball season so short and also hindered by inclement weather, many young softball players in Northern Minnesota get the majority of their game experience during the summer.
The Thunder Fastpitch program, the summer program that coordinates fastpitch softball in Grand Rapids, offers programs for girls from 6U up to 18U in age classes. Play is conducted at the Grand Rapids Sports Complex.
Dan Potter, a member of the Thunder Fastpitch Board, said the name was changed to the current one because a number of the girls involved in the summer program come from outside the Grand Rapids area. Thunder Fastpitch has one 6U team, and three 8U and 10U teams, two 12U teams and one 14U team. The 10U, 12U and 14U teams play in the Arrowhead League which consists of teams from as far north as International Falls, Ely, and Two Harbors to as far south as Grand Rapids and Hibbing.
“The main thing is to teach them softball and to have fun,” said Potter. “We are trying to build teams so they can play with their other players their age. We are trying to promote sports and if you start young enough, by the time you get older you do learn a lot about the game.
“There are no teams for some age groups in the spring so this is all the exposure they get to the game. This is where they learn to throw, catch and hit.”
Potter said teaching the young athletes the fundamentals of softball is extremely important.
“We really stress fundamentals and each age group has their own fundamentals that they teach,” Potter explained. “If you learn the game, when you learn how to hit and throw and catch better, you can be pretty successful.”
Potter said in league games, all-roster batting is used. That means that everybody on the team is able to get exposure to the art of hitting. He added that he is a coach with the 12U traveling team and he tries to teach players on that team two or three different positions defensively.
“If you are on the team, you bat every game,” Potter said. “The only time it changes is probably in the finals of the state tournament where they might go down to nine batters but otherwise the whole roster hits and we have free substitution so we can put them in and out as needed. It allows us to keep a good mix and allow players to learn multiple positions.”
Pitching is probably the most important element that dictates whether a team is going to be successful or not. Potter said Thunder Fastpitch puts an emphasis on teaching pitching. One of the summer pitching coaches is former Nashwauk-Keewatin High School star pitcher Aubrey Nelson who gives lessons two times a week in the summer.
In the winter, Potter – a veteran pitching coach himself – along with his daughter Amy, a former star pitcher for Greenway and Bemidji State University, are teaching pitchers.
“We like to have (former) pitchers involved in our program because pitching is so critical in fastpitch,” Potter, who serves as Hill City High School coach in the spring, said. “We try to get as many kids in the Grand Rapids area pitching as we possibly can. Pitching is where you have to be first; if you don’t have the pitching at the higher levels, it’s hard to bring the team to the higher level without the pitching.
“Once you have the pitching, then you can focus on everything else that goes with it and that’s what makes a complete team.”
Potter said coaching is a challenge and that Thunder Fastpitch is always looking for coaches. He said parents are allowed to coach up to the 10U level, and then coaches are hired on teams that are 12U and higher.
Potter said the main thing is for the girls to have fun in the program playing fastpitch softball.
“Having fun is what it is all about,” Potter explained. “It’s a team sport and team building is really what they remember when they move on. Even if they don’t continue to play softball, they still remember the whole atmosphere of playing softball.”
Potter encourages youngsters to come out next summer and play in the Thunder Fastpitch program.
“We want as many teams and players as we can. We do open up to area kids like Hill City, for example,” Potter said. “The more kids we have, the more fun it is. ”