No matter how many times we are surprised by a sporting event, or how often upsets occur, or how you just flat-out couldn’t have predicted the final score, we can’t help but believe some outcomes look pretty obvious in advance.
In the world of girls youth fastpitch softball, teams from Oklahoma simply didn’t carry the historical importance found in squads hailing from classic warm-weather settings like Texas, California, Florida and Georgia. It took a bit of invention and intuition born from a baseball mindset to change a piece of the fastpitch landscape in Oklahoma, and that burst of inspiration has led a group of low-profile players on the Gametime Stars to the high ground in top-shelf tournaments.
Fortified by a core of athletes who were there at the start as 10s, as well as the consistent voice of a coaching staff helmed by Rusty Fisher, the Gametime Stars 18u Gold owns multiple World Series titles and has 12 players with signed commitments to play D-1 college softball. If it seems curious that a team in and around Oklahoma City could rule the roost, Fisher’s initial approach indicated he was comfortable outside the margins.
“One of the very first meetings I had, I sat down with the assistants, who were strictly softball guys. I’d watched the game a little bit, and there was a lot of playing for one run,” said Fisher, who first coached his son in baseball and whose team played in national-scale Triple Crown Sports events. “Coming from baseball, we didn’t play for just one run. Everyone thought I was crazy, but my goal was to bring a baseball mentality and try to score 6-10 runs a game. In fact, I wanted to look back after that first year at 10s and see if we could average 10 runs a game. Ended up, we averaged 9.1, 9.2.
“After that first year, they’re saying, ‘he’s got something going here, let’s go with it.’ And we’ve stuck by that approach. We teach power hitting; sometimes we die by it, but we live by it all the time.”
The prime testing ground for Fisher’s beliefs came when the Stars were 11s and traveled to Iowa for a World Series featuring 30 top-notch clubs. The Stars run-ruled every opponent and stormed to the title, leaving a wake of confused onlookers in their path.
“Man, I was a softball coach by the book,” laughed Stars assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Ronnie Rogers, “where you get a runner on, bunt her over, all that. Rusty never took that approach – his approach was that you hit away. It was kind of funny, because it took a little while for (that theory) to connect. But it’s been pretty fun, because up to last year, we were always underneath the radar.”
“We’ve won a couple (tournaments) where people took us lightly. They don’t know who we are, but after, they sure know,” said shortstop Kristen Prieto, who will be on the campus at the University of Tulsa next fall. “We don’t try to be cocky; we show confidence and that we know what we are doing. We like to show the work we’ve done.”
The payoffs have been steady ever since that 11u campaign. One of the keystone moments for the program came in 2013, when as 16s they reached the highly coveted TV game for the Triple Crown Sparkler/Fireworks event. Although they didn’t win, the Stars took a lot from being able to handle such intense competition.
How the Stars seem to handle big moments, and how they’ve willed themselves to be more than meets the eye, likely came from Fisher’s unrelenting advice.
“From the very start, I told the girls this is about discipline, dedication and determination. Carry yourself with confidence all the time,” Fisher said. “You walk to the concession stand with confidence; you go into the bathroom with confidence; you walk on the field confident and know you can get it done. It’s just a bunch of hard-nosed, hard-working kids.
“My baseball team had traveled all around the country, and then I took over this group of girls that hadn’t been out of the state. First year, we want to Florida, Texas, Kansas, and I think a lot of other teams began to get on board with that, too. We had to get out of our boundary box and test the waters.”
And over the next few years, the waters of D-1 softball will be churning with the influx of Stars players:
Jayden Chestnut, Caleigh Clifton, Lynnsie Elam, Raylee Pogue, Raegan Rogers – Oklahoma
Caitlin Bingham, Brighton Gilbert, Madison Perrigan – Wichita State
Macy Fisher, Sydney Sherrill – Florida State
Jen Marwitz – Kansas
Kristen Prieto – Tulsa
Lindsey Stoeckel – Creighton (offered, not signed)
Of course, even if the Stars have a business-like approach and refuse to embrace much flash in their game, the bittersweet truth about watching the first group of kids head off to college next fall is already tugging on the emotions.
“It’s sad to think this is my last summer with these girls, who I grew up with. We talk about it a lot,” Prieto said. “We try to emphasize this is our last run, and we have to try our best. I think we can win a national title.”
“Even thinking of that, it’s amazing. My daughter is one of those kids; from back when they were 10, to now where we have 13 D-I athletes … you’d be crazy to think that,” Rogers added. “But honestly, they’ve all worked to get to the next level, to get their education and play in college. It’s exciting to see the next chapter open.”
Fisher learned how to balance the roles of father and coach with daughter Macy on the roster, and the impact of sending the first wave onward will be another emotional test.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world, watching my daughter grow up as a player and a person all those years,” he said. “We were all talking about it at the end of practice — there are a couple of girls who can’t wait for the end of next season, so they can see me cry. The girls are ready for the next step, and they’ve been preparing for this their whole lives. They’re anxious to get on to it, and it’ll be fun following them along the way.”