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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Greater Spokane League slowpitch teams gather under the lights at Merkel

Wildcats teammates greet Mt. Spokane’s Peyton Bischoff (14) after she hit a two-run homer in the first inning against Mead on Tuesday at Merkel Sports Complex.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

For the second year in a row, the entire Greater Spokane League – plus a guest, this season – met at Merkel Sports Complex in northwest Spokane for a night of slowpitch softball under the lights. It’s an opportunity for the sport to show off in a setting that’s usually reserved for football or soccer.

“These kids and these teams deserve a showcase night like any of the other sports,” said Grady Emmerson, Ridgeline athletic director and GSL slowpitch coordinator.

University and Central Valley were the pioneers of the evening rivalry game, starting the “Fall Ball Brawl” in 2011, and brought in generators and temporary lights to illuminate the field. Last year, organizers explored the idea to include the entire league. When Merkel got on board, a new tradition was born.

“Some coaches took the lead last year and kind of helped organize it and it was such a success,” Emmerson said. “We said, ‘It’s worth it to keep doing this for the community.’ It’s a great night for the softball community to come one place and catch all these games.”

With 13 of the 16 GSL schools participating in slowpitch, Shadle Park volunteered to play twice last season so that everyone had a game. This season, Moses Lake made the trek to even things out and join in the fun.

Mavericks coach Mike Hofheins reached out to Emmerson before the season to indicate their interest.

“I knew about this event from just talking to coaches that I know and it sounded fun,” Hofheins said.

“I’m like, ‘Hey, we’ll come up to be an even number if you want. It sounds like fun.’ Now that we’re here, it’s an awesome atmosphere to play in. Super fun.”

U-Hi, which knocked off CV 15-0 in their annual rivalry game, remained undefeated in league play.

Senior Abby Watkins, an all-league selection for fastpitch last spring, was proud to claim victory in the rivalry. But she admitted that playing under the lights is a challenge even for the best players.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking, but you always want to show up and show people what you’re all about and why you’re on this team,” she said.

“I don’t know if (the atmosphere) gets any better, at least until you get to the postseason,” Titans coach Matt Connor said. “I think that what we’ve done to attract some attention to our sport, have a great night for the whole league here at Merkel, has just been exciting for the girls, for the parents, for the coaches, for the schools. I was excited that we’ve done this.”

Slowpitch teams are populated with serious softball players, athletes who participate in other sports, and some who come out looking for the varsity experience or to play a new sport. Some teams even have first-timers playing in their first sport.

“One of the challenges some of the schools face, us in particular, is that we have a couple of girls who play volleyball, who are also varsity (softball) players,” Shadle Park coach Scott Harmon said.

“So although they might be fastpitch players in the spring, we lose them in the fall. But at the same time, too, we are also giving a chance for other girls to grow their skill sets. In slowpitch, it gives them more of an opportunity to play.”

For some schools, slowpitch can be more of a participatory sport. The experience of playing at Merkel under the lights might be their only chance to play in front of a crowd.

“I think it adds a lot to our high school experience being able to do this, “North Central freshman Chanel Beals said. “There’s a lot more people watching and you feel more pressure to perform better.”

“A lot of the girls on our team do not play club ball,” NC coach Chris Lester said. “So they don’t get to come to this complex. They’ve never played at this complex before. And we’re under the lights. Most of the families are done with work by now and so they get to come and enjoy the game because it’s a little bit later. And you could hear our crowd – we had NC, we had Shadle, it was so loud in here the students could hardly even hear us coach from the dugout.”

For one night, at least, slowpitch gets its moment to shine.

“This is like serious softball, and they feel like they’re in the big leagues,” Lester said. “So that’s pretty cool.”