We have a new group of National Pro Fastpitch Champions.
And former Wildcats Robin Thompson and Tammy Williams are among the heralded.
On Sunday, Aug. 21, the Chicago Bandits beat the USSSA Florida Pride 10-3 in the second game of a best-of-three series to win their second postseason title in franchise history. Williams went 1-for-4 at the plate and scored a run, while Thompson also scored after being inserted into the game to pinch run. Former Northwestern softball coach Lauren Lappin also played second base in the game for the Pride squad.
"Winning the NPF championship was like the icing on the cake to an already amazing and memorable summer, spent with women who excel in their sport and who put so much effort and energy into making the league what it is," Thompson said in a text message. "When Monica [Abbott] got the third out, I was just thinking, "This is what you live for." The feeling is indescribable. You just feel so accomplished and proud to be a part of a wonderful organization."
This summer marked Thompson's rookie season and William's second with the organization. This was the second year in a row that the two teams met for the postseason title, and Pride fans were confident that their defending and regular season NPF champions would come out on top. The Pride finished the regular season 30-9, miles ahead of the second place Akron Racers who finished 22-17. At one point in the season, they were riding an 18-game win streak and entered the Championship Series the clear favorite. The Bandits, however, proved otherwise.
"It was such an incredible feeling to finish that last out and bring home the championship; such a special moment to be there fighting to win for your teammates and the people that have fought for the NPF and Bandits family the entire year," said Williams in an e-mail. "This was the perfect ending."
The NPF began 2002 and currently consists of four teams based throughout the United States: the Akron Racers, Chicago Bandits, USSSA Florida Pride, and NPF Diamonds. The four teams play a 40-game regular season schedule from early June to mid-August with a 3-game championship series played near the end of August. Each year, the NPF holds a player draft where college seniors can be signed to contracts after their eligibility has been exhausted, and individual teams may hold regional tryouts to fill roster spots. An average of 1,500 to 2,500 fans attend each game with ticket prices starting at just $5.
The first professional softball league, called the International Women's Professional Softball Association (IWPSA) began in 1976 and lasted for four 120-game seasons before it died due to a lack of funding, high travel costs and inadequate facilities. In 1989, former Utah State University player Jane Cowles felt it was time to reintroduce professional softball and after eight years of development and research, the Women's Pro Fastpitch (WPF) league was born.
In 2002, the league announced its official name change to National Pro Fastpitch and partnered with Major League Baseball to facilitate future exposure and expansion. The league is home to a wide array of the country's best players; former Olympians, collegiate All-Americans, and all-conference selections. In 2004, individual owners of the NPF teams transferred operations of the NPF from the founding Cowles family to an operating group of team owners, and Cheri Kempf was hired in 2007 as NPF Commissioner. A former television analyst and 1992 World Cup-winning USA National Softball Team member, Kempf has expanded the league's operations, sponsorships and media coverage over the past four years.
Due to scheduling conflicts and a lack of funding, earlier this year many of the league's veterans were faced with the very difficult decision to choose between playing USA Softball or NPF. The group unanimously committed their 2011 seasons exclusively to the NPF. While it was incredibly unfortunate to see some of the best players in the world -- Jessica Mendoza, Natasha Watley and Cat Osterman, to name a few -- hang up their red, white and blue uniforms, their act of selflessness is what the NPF needs to grow as a professional league. With our sport taken out of the Olympics until at least 2020, the NPF stands as the highest level an American softball player can dream of reaching.
In a statement to fans explaining her decision to turn down an invitation to try out for the USA National Softball Team and play in the NPF full-time, former Northwestern softball coach and current USSSA Pride member Lauren Lappin had this to say:
"We owe it to the young girls that we speak to every weekend at clinics. We owe it to the women who wore the uniforms BEFORE us and paved the way for so many generations to harvest their OWN dreams of becoming an elite softball player. We owe it to the 18 to 21 year-olds who are tearing it up at every level of the college game and deserve a chance to keep playing. We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of fans who tune into ESPN and watch the Women's College World Series and the World Cup of Softball every ear. We owe it to the millions of girls worldwide that have a bat on their shoulder, a glove in their hands, and a dream in their hearts. It is our duty to extend the path of the softball career beyond youth, beyond high school and college, to a final destination that is a professional league."
With the full support and participation of former Olympic superstars like Lappin, this summer's 2011 season has been pivotal to the growth and development of the NPF. Attendance at Bandits games was up 15 percent over last year while season ticket sales increased a whopping 76 percent after the franchise moved to a dedicated new stadium in Rosemont, Ill., prior to this season. The next chapter in revolutionizing professional softball is in full effect and everyone involved over at NPF is anxious for the page to be turned. They've launched a Twenty for 20 Campaign, an initiative designed to raise vital League funding to insure the stability of professional fastpitch for future generations. Those who want to see the sport become a viable profession are encouraged to donate a mere $20 to ensure its stability and success; twenty dollars for professional softball in 2020.
"Women's fastpitch softball has proven itself as a sport that delivers entertainment, whether you are watching live or on television," stated Commissioner Kempf in a press release. "It is a sport that is worthy of belonging to the hierarchy of professional sports options. I am asked daily by fans of softball and folks who are generally interested in elevating women, how they can help. This is the answer. It is a twenty dollar donation that, in volume, can make a significant impact on our ability to deliver this sport to an enthusiastic audience."
Our sport is on the cusp of revolutionary growth, important growth. I can't tell you what it meant to me to watch former teammates and coaches on ESPN in that championship game last Sunday. To have played with those women -- fought with those women -- in the game you love, and then to see them continue on to play it at the highest level... it's pure elation. The NPF Championship is our own World Series, currently the biggest stage you can dream about as a little girl and they're on it, shining.
"Having the summer end with an NPF championship was once again just adding to the memories and respect that I have for such amazing athletes. To see dreams come true and to be a part of it helps you to realize that our sport has so much to offer to young girls and women who still have dreams to one day play professional softball," said Thompson.
As we look to our own sport's future, we glimpse the landscape of women's sports and see change on the horizon. We see women like Tennessee women's basketball head coach Pat Summitt and the strength, dignity and legacy that she has brought and will continue to bring to women's college basketball. We see women like Hope Solo and Abby Wambach and the performances they turned in when given the opportunity on an international stage, capturing America's attention so much so that 15,000 fans would pile into stadiums the week after the World Cup just to watch Wambach's professional team play.
We must keep the NPF on the path it's headed down; keep in stride with our female peers. Young softball players across the nation -- and our sport itself -- depend on it.
Maybe, just maybe, by 2020 this conversation will be a vapor in the past. And our own professional stadiums will be filled with fans by the 15,000's.