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N.D. Girls Fastpitch Softball: A big growth spurt

Grand Forks Express shortstop Michele Remer tags a Kindred runner out at second during the teams opening round game of the girls 18U Fast Pitch State Tournament. Grand Forks would go on to defeat Kindred 3-0. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 4
Grand Forks Express pitcher Elisabeth Hoplin in action during the teams opening game of the 18U Fast Pitch State Tournament against Kindred, ND Saturday at the Ulland Complex. Hoplin would shutout Kindred in a 3-0 victory. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 4
Samantha Rarick watches from the dugout as a fellow Grand Forks teammate steps to the plate Saturday in the teams first game against Kindred. Grand Forks would go on to defeat Kindred 3-0. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 4
Grand Forks Express teammates huddle up before taking the field in their first game of the 18U Fast pitch Girls State Tournament against Kindred, ND. Grand Forks would go on to defeat Kindred 3-0. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)4 / 4

There wasn’t a single girls fastpitch player registered in the North Dakota Amateur Softball Association when Jim Hanley became commissioner.

That was in 1996. Now that number is more than 1,000 and climbing.

“At first, I didn’t see it blossoming, not as fast as it has,” said Hanley, who resigned as NDASA commissioner earlier this year. “I thought there would be opposition to it (as a spring prep sport) because it was the same time as track. And we had slowpitch softball, which was popular. But it became obvious that fastpitch was going to step on the toes of slowpitch.

“Girls slowpitch still has its state tournament. But the number of participants is way, way down. That’s because fastpitch has become so popular.”

Girls fastpitch softball has grown in leaps and bounds in North Dakota.

In addition to the more than 1,000 athletes ages 18 and under playing in the summer months, it became a sanctioned sport by the North Dakota High School Activities Association in 2009. The number of high school teams has more than doubled in six seasons.

This weekend, Grand Forks is hosting the annual state NDASA Junior Olympic girls fastpitch tournament for the first time. The event was scheduled to bring 47 teams and approximately 600 athletes to Grand Forks.

“Anybody can play slowpitch,’’ Hanley said. “Fastpitch is more intense, more challenging. It just caught on. Kids tried it and they liked it.’’

A needed spark

But what was the incentive for young athletes to make the transition from slowpitch to fastpitch?

Mike Bisenius, a long-time fastpitch supporter in Grand Forks, said the impetus came from Pat Johnson and the powerhouse program he’s built in West Fargo.

West Fargo has won 17 consecutive state high school fastpitch championships – the first 11 when it was a club sport and the past six after fastpitch was sanctioned by the NDHSAA.

“The person who I think really got it going statewide was Pat Johnson,’’ Bisenius said. “He promoted the sport like crazy in Fargo and West Fargo. It just sort of spread from there.

“We started the fastpitch program (in Grand Forks) as a high school club team. It worked its way into summer programs from there. It took a few years to develop the interest. At first, we didn’t have a lot of girls playing. The hard part was convincing them to get away from slowpitch and give fastpitch a try. Interest slowly picked up.’’

Fastpitch wasn’t an overnight success. Johnson said West Fargo and the Fargo schools were the first to have club teams, with Grand Forks Central and Red River the next ones on board. Interest grew across the state. Skill levels also grew.

While there were a few good teams in the mid-1990s when fastpitch was catching on, “we didn’t have enough experienced players,’’ Johnson said. “Teams probably had a good pitcher and maybe seven to eight good players. The game has really evolved.

“The play is much better. Teams are branching out in the summer, going different places to play. Kids are going to camps. The girls are better at fundamentals, and the skill level is rising. We knew it would be a learning process.’’

Another jolt

The one big jolt to the sport, both Bisenius and Johnson said, was when fastpitch became a sanctioned sport by the NDHSAA.

While the Minnesota State High School League state fastpitch tournament dates back to 1977, the NDHSAA’s first state tournament was in 2009.

There were 15 teams and one classification in that initial sanctioned season. This spring, there were 34 teams, with state tournaments in both Class A (16 teams) and Class B (18 teams).

“I think the interest in fastpitch has started to explode,” said Sheryl Solberg, the former assistant to the executive secretary at the NDHSAA. “Look at the last few years, when the NCAA fastpitch tournament games have been televised nationally.”

Solberg didn’t know what to expect when fastpitch was initially sanctioned. There was opposition from track coaches, who feared losing athletes to a new sport. And schools faced costs in adding another program.

“School boards and administrators had to be convinced that they should start new programs,” Solberg said. “You hoped a couple schools would keep starting programs from one year to the next.

“I was concerned when it first started that it would stall out before it really got going. To me, it felt like it was going slowly. But as teams got better and more teams came in, you could see fastpitch getting its foot in the door.”

If the NDASA’s participation numbers are an indicator, that foot in the door has become an open floodgate.