Outfield fences on all four fields at about 280-300 feet?
One line with one window for concessions with four games going on at once?
Bench areas well beyond first and third base and actually in the outfield?
No covers on the bench areas?
A mesh net above the entire home plate area that stopped pop ups from going straight up, to the side and behind the catcher?
I had even more questions than those back in 1977 when I arrived at Saratoga Softball Complex in Waukesha for the second-ever WIAA State Girls’ Fastpitch state tournament. I had been to parts of the first one played at Olbrich Park in Madison so a first look at Saratoga was a shocker. For me it remained a shocker for 25 years.
Don’t get me wrong. Saratoga was and probably a great venue for softball leagues and tournaments. That is if you start talking about slow pitch softball. For a fastpitch tournament it was a challenge for coaches, players, umpires, fans and administrators - everyone! As I look back on it the girls’ game itself truly resembled slow pitch more than fastpitch. The score of the championship between little Elmwood and huge Sheboygan South was 15-13. Other than bunting and stealing it really was like watching a slow pitch game.
As I stood and watched eight teams warm up out there I realized that to win a game at Saratoga you would have to defeat the facility first. There were so many things that were so much different than any fields most teams were accustomed to. Although most games were played on townships, village or city owned fields none were really set up like Saratoga. The complex there was not set up to have games played on it at 8 or 9 in the morning. The grass was not mowed like a professional ballfield. There was a real, more than noticeable lip where the grass and the baseline dirt met. The backstop was just a few feet behind the umpire and that net above the entire plate area really affected the outcomes of many games. The complex was what we now call a four-plex with very little room between sideline fences. The bleacher capacity was minimal with no protection from looping liners, screamers and pop fouls from any one of the other three fields that a game you were playing in or watching. Throughout the years there I saw balls landing on adjacent fields where baserunners were on the move after a ball was put in play on the field where the runners were moving.
Water was yet another issue. The tournament was played in June. On hot days water was a huge issue. The facility nor the WIAA provided water for the teams. There was a place that containers could be filled but that was not very sanitary.
Protection from the sun or rain was an issue as well. If a team failed to take along their own tarps and tie downs they either got baked on the hot days or soaked on the rainy ones. Some got baked one day and soaked the next and vice versa.
The infield dirt could be tricky as well. If there had been rain and the sun had baked the black dirt the base paths would get hard and the ball would really bounce. If it had rained and the grass was wet the balls tended to skid and would be tough plays for middle infielders. Not so much for the corners who were always standing on the grass. When it rained hard just getting games in was tough. On weekdays men’s slow pitch started early in the evening and the place had to be cleared so they could get their games in. The tournament was a Tuesday through Thursday event in those days. It was always a rush. In 1996 the entire tournament got washed out because of rain and teams had to return the following week. My good fastpitch friend Ron Fiske was coaching at Pardeeville that year. He led them to the Final Four but they had to go there two weeks in a row to get the tournament played. There was also the issue of communication. Everything was different than normal at Saratoga. Those bench areas were tight and they were so far away from the home plate area that communicating was really tough, especially for the team in the field. In the later years the WIAA actually chalked in a box on each side of the sideline fence between home plate and the corner bases so the defensive coach could leave the bench area and coach from that chalked rectangle in order to communicate with the players in the field. I refused to use that box after the first inning in 1998, It felt like I was coaching a T-ball game.
When I attended those tournaments there I jotted down notes that I might be able to use in the future if our program ever reached the Final Four. Each year I’d notice a little thing here and there that might separate one team from the other when it came to beating the facility before beating the actual opponent.
A couple of things I noticed all the time is that coaches were caught in a Catch 22 when it came to that infield grass. Most chose to move their middle infielders up so as to not get caught with that first wicked hop coming off that lip where the grass met the dirt. I witnessed many games where that aspect of Saratoga determined the outcome of games. If they moved them back they had to make longer throws to retire runners. The place really was a first rate slow pitch venue but a second-rate venue for a state fastpitch tournament. It was sad that it took as long as it did to get it located somewhere else.
In 1996 I thought we had a team that could get to the Final Four. We had tremendous middle infielders, a centerfielder who could cover real estate and was a great leadoff batter. Our second sacker was one of the best had seen and proved it during her collegiate days. We were really good at the hot corner. We had an excellent sophomore pitcher who threw pretty hard for those days, had pin-point control and a dynamic change up. Our batting order featured some excellent power, speed and they could turn a leadoff walk or error into a run within two batters most of the time. We surprised a couple of excellent teams during the season and in the tournament and made it to the sectional sectional. We had to face the defending Division 2 state champion Wisconsin Dells Chiefs coached by my former baseball teammate and great friend Dale Gray, now a WFSCA Hall of Famer. They were good and had most players back from that title team. We hung with them and nipped them sending us into the sectional final where we were to meet Richland Center. We took a 1-0 lead and a rainstorm interrupted us. I learned a lot about rain delays that day and that lesson that carries over to how we handle them still. After the rain delay we had a chance to score again but an unusual circumstance arose and one of our girls did not steal when given the signal. The next batter singled which would have easily scored our swift runner who was still at first. She died at third when the last out of the inning was recorded. Richland Center scored two runs before the game was over and moved on to the state tournament. Current Arrowhead Head Coach Emily Martin was a tremendous second sacker on that Richland Center team.
As I mentioned in my post earlier this morning. Dan Heisdorf of Campbellsport suggested I request all of you to submit some stories about two or three of your most memorable games. Those two sectional games, played back-to-back on the same day on two different fields are well remembered.
We got nipped the next year in a tight regional final game by one of our arch rivals on their home field in Waunakee. We always enjoyed taking on Steve Ryan (another WFSCA HOF member) and his Warrior units. Dale Gray led his Wisconsin Dells team back to the state tournament from our sectional that year.
We knew that we were the top team in our sectional going into 1998. We had a nice ball club and played a tough schedule including a Saturday doubleheader against Providence Catholic in New Lenox Illinois. That was one of the largest parochial schools in Illinois. They were really good but we were able to split with them. That would wind up being our only loss of the season. We claimed another conference title, regional and sectional beating Dale Gray and the Dells Chiefs and prepared for Saratoga and the Division 2 Final Four.
I spent the next week preparing our kids for those grass infields, deep outfields and all the other factors I had seen affect the outcome of games at Saratoga. We practiced on the grass with our corners and pitchers. To acclimate our middle infielders we turned them around on the infield dirt and hit ground balls to them so they would have to field them coming off our outfield grass onto that dirt. Our plan was to move our middle infielders deeper than most played instead of playing up close to beat that bad hop we’d seen eat up so many good infielders. We placed small pieces of white paper in our outfield grass so the outfielders were, what we thought was the best distance from the plate. We worked hard on covering bunts in the grass and even watered the grass in case it might be raining or heavy dew at Saratoga. We scrimmaged and coached from out in our outfield to simulate Saratoga. I felt we were ready.
We were 22-1 on the season with that only loss coming against one of Illinois’ best teams. The crazy thing about being 22-1 was that the other three Final Four teams, Luxemburg-Casco, Prescott and Greendale were all unbeaten at 23-0. The papers didn’t give us much of a chance as I now go back and read those articles. Greendale was the team to beat according to the writers and their sources. At the all district selection meeting the coach of the team that Greendale beat in the sectional told the coaches at the meeting, me included that “Nodody was going to beat Greendale.”
Before our first game against Luxemburg-Casco, coached by my good friend Tom Giachino, while the team was on the field warming up I strolled around the outfield and dropped those small pieces of paper in the grass so our outfielders knew where our basic depths were. We made adjustments like we always do on each batter from those spots. We took our own water jugs already filled with ice and water. We took blue tarps and bungee cords to hold them down so we could keep the sun off the kids in the bench area. We had drilled with the outfielders opposite wherever our bench was to take hand signals to adjust their depth and angles. We were prepared. The game started.
We went down 1-2-3 in the top of the first then committed five errors in the bottom of the inning. Two of those errors occurred on the same play and allowed a run which led to 3 more for Luxemburg-Casco. We got out of the inning down 4-0. We settled them down and went on to beat them 9-4.
We went on to nip Greendale in a great championship game that saw us come from behind in the bottom of the seventh then again in the bottom of the tenth for a 4-3 win. Our shortstop proved her mettle that day ranging deeper than most of the middle infielders we saw there, making plays in the hole and up the middle and just nipping the batter-runners for outs. Our second sacker showed some moxie with a great base running move on a throw from the catcher to first base. We returned to Saratoga in 1999 finishing second to Mayville 1-0. We set a state tournament record in that game by striking out 16 times and gave up the game’s only run due to a play that involved that darn media box chalked next to the fence along the first baseline. The final was 1-0 but that’s another story for another day.
The state tournament was going to get moved somewhere after the turn of the century. Several places were in the running until the Goodman Brothers donated more money to the facility at Goodman Diamond and paid for the lights to be installed. By 2002 the WIAA had increased the program to four divisions. The first four state champions at Goodman were Stevens Point with a 5-2 win over Verona; Shawano Community with a 3-0 win over River Valley (coached by current River Valley coach and WFSCA Treasurer Jane Briehl, who by the way is one of the few female head coaches who have played in the WIAA state tourney and coached in it; Horicon under the tutelage of Roger Schliewe a WFSCA HOF member beat Turner 7-2 coached by WFSCA Hall of Famer and one of my heroes, and in Division 4 the winner was Belmont coached by former WFSCA President and sure future HOF member Jeff Hodgson in a 1-0 win over Regis from Eau Claire. Since 201y the WIAA has five divisions in softball.
From infields covered with grass to an infield that is synthetic dirt, the state tournament has progressed a long way. And so has the quality of play, the size of the crowds and the bats that kids swing in this day and age. The young ladies who started it all off in the mid and late 70s in blue jeans could have never dreamed of what was to come.
Have a great day!
I have my fingers crossed. You should too!