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PREMIER GIRLS FASTPITCH 10th ANNIVERSARY : Travel softball’s top organization continues to grow in many ways

By Loren Kopff

@LorenKopff on Twitter

 

For the longest time, the Amateur Softball Association was the leading organization where travel softball players showcased their talents, hopeful of landing college scholarships and potentially a career in the sport beyond college. And while the ASA remains the governing body for softball in the nation, having been around for close to 90 years, there’s an up and coming organization that is in its 10th year, and continues to grow.

The Premier Girls Fastpitch began in 2010 and was once thought to rival the ASA. But instead, more and more teams that were a fixture of the ASA in every age level from 10-Under to 18 Gold, have jumped ship with no regrets. If there were any doubts as to if the PGF would last a few years, let alone 10, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of the PGF, Dan Hay, always knew the organization would take off without a hitch.

“People have asked me that quite a few different times,” Hay said. “I never had a thought in my head going, ‘boy, I think someday this could be the biggest event in the country on this major scale’. I never thought that. But I had belief in the product. I had belief in the brand. I had the belief in my abilities. I had belief in [co-founder] Gary [Haning] and the rest of the people that we brought into the structure of this thing.

“We stayed focused on just going straightforward in meeting a goal and didn’t let any of the rhetoric on the right or the left get in our way,” he added. “As a result of that, we have what you see here now.”

Before forming the PGF, Hay was running the Victory USA softball program and coached the 18-Under team. The program also had a 16-Under team, won a national championship at the 14-Under level and had a 12-Under and a 10-Under team. He said the main reason for leaving the ASA and forming the PGF was their dissatisfaction with the sanctioning body that was controlling them at the time. He recalled that they would go to a national championship somewhere in the country in 100-degree heat and 100 percent humidity and there would be 120 teams in that national championship competing. He knew realistically out of those 120 teams [that] half the field were the best of the best and the other half really should have been competing in a division of their own.

Hay added that the ASA was very resistant to changing a lot of the recommended ideas that a lot of the top coaches in the country had. He would later join Haning, who was coaching the Orange County Batbusters, whom Hay described as the New York Yankees of softball.

“Our partnership basically started because Gary, at that time, was like the pied piper of softball,” Hay said. “He could raise his hand and 600 teams would follow him wherever he went. Yet here, in Southern California, I was the one who had all the contacts with all of the municipalities and the business background to make this thing work.”

When the PGF began, there were a combined116 teams in two divisions, 16-Under and 18-Under, that competed in the National Championship. By 2013, the field had expanded to five divisions with nearly 300 teams. This year, there are nine divisions and approximately 650 teams that will make their way to Southern California. Just in the top two age groups alone, which conclude on Saturday with championship games, there are close to 340 teams.

“It was absolutely based on demand only,” Hay said. “If we had the demands in the second year, we would have had 600 teams come. Because of how we have run this and made it about the families and about a family event when they come here, not just about playing softball…every year, more and more people heard about it and every year, more and more people were knocking on our door, ringing on our phones saying we want to come.”

Another top reason why Hay and Haning formed the PGF had to do with a vital component of why we live in the Golden State. Hay, like many coaches, remembered going to ASA Nationals in the East and Southeast and as soon as your team lost, you were looking for a flight to come back home because of the weather, not the hospitable people. He said people stay another two or three days out here once they have been eliminated to soak up the Southern California lifestyle

“As far as the weather is concerned, the first three years that we were in existence, we had teams from the East saying, ‘you said we were going to rotate this, West one year, East the next year’,” Hay recalled. “I looked at them finally and I said, ‘you name one other place at the end of July, the first week of August that is still in the high 70s with a cool ocean breeze and I will more than happy look into that location’.”

When the PGF began in 2010, there were three sites hosted the National Championship games-the Huntington Beach Central Park Sports Complex, which has eight softball fields, and Harvard Park (seven fields) and Colonel Bill Barber Marine Corps Memorial Park (four fields), both in Irvine. The main field at Bill Barber is Deanna Manning Stadium, where the championship games are played.

Fountain Valley Recreation Center and Sports Park, which wasn’t built at that time, latter became another top destination for games with close to 10 softball fields. And this year, the Orange County Great Park was added and has nine softball fields. Other smaller venues are used for pool play games only.

The different playing sites wouldn’t be possible without the relationships that Hay and Haning and others built with the cities of Fountain Valley, Irvine and Huntington Beach.

“The City of Huntington Beach…this is a relationship that I’ve had since I was a kid,” Hay said. “I used to work for the city when I was a teenager and a lot of the people I’ve worked with through the years, I’ve known for 30-40 years. So, my relationship with the City of Huntington Beach has been a longstanding relationship.”

Hay has also had the same relationship with Fountain Valley as he has coached there, and his kids played little league in Fountain Valley. Hay has also built a relationship with Irvine over the past 15 years and began the Surf City Tourneys before PGF while Haning had a relationship with the City of Irvine before the two teamed up over 15 years ago.

Throughout the past 10 years, there have been numerous additions to the PGF. From how they run things to how they pay their umpires, Hay is at a loss for words but if he sat down for an hour, he could come up with 20 different things.

He did cite that in 2010, the PGF partnered up with ESPN Rise, which specialized in high school sports and wanted to take over the world. That relationship lasted one year. Later, the championship games would be televised on the Fox Sports networks. Now, they are televised on the ESPN Networks.

“I honestly believe the T.V. side of things…it was very important to Gary Haning at the time that we televise these games,” Hay said. “Most of our competitors right now are going away from television on the youth softball side of things. They’re just concentrating on streaming now. We still think it’s important. Even though it costs us a tremendous amount of money to do, it’s something that we feel puts us above and beyond the rest of our competition. And, the kids love it and their families love it. They want to see it.”

Just because the PGF was formed in Southern California and there are more travel softball teams here than any other part of the country, especially with the expansion of some of the top programs, that doesn’t mean every champion will come from the state. The parity of the sport has grown since year one and in fact, last year’s 18-Under Premier Division champion hails from Kennesaw, GA-the Georgia Impact.

“Number one, there is a lot of parity out there and the rest of the country has gotten much better,” Hay said. “A lot of them have come out and played against Southern California teams in the fall and other times during the year so they could get their kids used to this type of competition. Because we play year-round. And, if you’re only going to come see us once a year, you’ll get out-coached.”

Hay continued to say that Southern California teams have turned into franchises and the talent has spread throughout the organizations. Just in this year’s PGF National Championship alone, there are teams from as far north as Rhode Island to South Florida to the Pacific Northwest, from the Ohio Valley to the Southeast and from the heartland to the desert There’s even a team from Alberta and in the past, a team from Guam has appeared in this event. Hay says the PGF

will automatically invite teams outside the United States who express interest in coming here.

Hay will not talk about financials, but said they, ‘do not spare any expense to make this the best event in my opinion, not only in the country, but in the world’. With that said, one of the things that is new this season is the first place team, second place team, two third place teams and two fifth place teams will all get respective team trophies as well as individual medals. That came from an email a mother sent and asked why the first and second place teams of every division have individual trophies and the third place team only got a team trophy.

As far as the outlook of the PGF, Hay says they’re getting to a point where there aren’t too many fields in Southern California. So, keeping the main fields they have been using for 10 years is vital. He added that the PGF will not hold this event if they can’t hold it in large, respectable complexes.

“I have no idea [of the future],” Hay said. “We just evaluate every single year and try to make the following year even better. So far, we’ve been very successful in doing that.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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