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Mark Allister is the author of Women’s College Softball on the Rise: A Season Inside the Game. He will be writing on DIII softball this spring and would welcome story ideas and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
508 colleges and universities will be sending their women’s softball teams to THE Spring Games (TSG), the biggest college softball gathering in the world. Teams from NCAA Divisions I, II, and III, as well as teams from the NAIA and Junior College ranks, will play over 2,200 games in central Florida from mid-February to late March.
An event of this magnitude does not originate overnight, nor without considerable serendipity.
In one sense TSG history began in 1976 when the legendary pioneer Marge Ricker, best known for her coaching years with the professional Orlando Rebels, organized the first-ever Rebel Games in central Florida, a tournament with northern college teams as well as professional women’s fastpitch teams. Included on her roster in 1976 was the 16-year-old high-schooler Dot Richardson, who decades later would found THE Spring Games, her own landmark tournament.
Richardson, now the head softball coach at Liberty University, was an All-American shortstop at UCLA, helping the Bruins in 1982 win their first of twelve NCAA national championships. She was named the 1980's NCAA Player of the Decade, but her accomplishments didn’t end there.
Richardson graduated from UCLA with a degree in kinesiology, received a Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology from Adelphi University in 1988, and an M.D. from Louisville in 1993. Midway through a post-doctoral residency in orthopedic surgery, Richardson joined the national softball team preparing for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and she helped Team USA win the gold medal that year and again in Sydney in 2000.
Medicine and softball became intertwined for Richardson in a new way when she retired after the Olympics. She got married in 2001, began a private practice in Clermont, Florida, and became an executive with South Lake Hospital, in part because of their connection to the National Training Center, a state-of-the-art sports and fitness facility that the hospital opened as a way to embed sports, health, and fitness activities within an education and wellness campus.
“When I was hired by the hospital,” Richardson recalls, “I was hired as the executive director of the National Training Center: pool, track, multi-purpose fields. I said let’s get some team sports here.
“The year before the Legends Way Ballfields were completed was the year that Marge Ricker had sold the Rebel Games. So I decided to begin my own tournament aimed at teams in DIII, who didn’t really have a good place to go at that time. I got on the phone and called colleges, talking about our fields, and DIII coaches started saying ‘I’m coming’ because they weren’t getting all that they wanted at other tournaments. Our first year in 2008 we had forty-eight teams. We started with DIII, then went to DII, then we heard from NAIA.”
All In The Family
THE Spring Games is one of many activities promoted by PFX Athletics, the organization that Richardson founded with a mission to open the doors of opportunity for women and girls through sport. TSG is the organization’s biggest event, with games played now at eight venues in addition to Legends Way Ballfields. As president and executive director of PFX Athletics, Alison Strange is responsible for scheduling all these teams and managing these sites.
TSG serves particularly well the schools located in cold weather climates who have small budgets and can’t afford to travel multiple times. The smaller colleges might play a third or more of their schedule over their spring break in Florida, with doubleheaders most days. Games are planned to play a large role in team development. For purposes of scheduling, Strange asks each coach to indicate if there are teams they’d like to play (teams coached by a former player, for example) or teams they don’t want to play.
She also asks coaches to rank themselves along an A-E scale, which goes like this — A: We expect to go to regionals; B: We expect to go to conference; C: We hope to win more games than we lose, but we’re average; D: We’re probably going to struggle; E: We hope to survive the season.
Over the course of their stay at THE Spring Games, a team will get to challenge itself at its desired level. A coach who ranks her team a B will play against other teams similarly ranked but might play a game up one level or down. Computer software helps Strange with this complex scheduling, but listening and hard work matter equally.
Alison Strange happens to be Dot Richardson’s niece, but no nepotism was at work with the hire. Strange played college softball at Stetson, and then toured in a pro league. In addition to her undergraduate degree, she has an MBA and is a practicing attorney. She wrote her undergrad thesis and her law school thesis on Title IX, both its history and legislative administration. She’s a mother of two children who often accompany her to her work.
Strange is an articulate advocate for girls and women’s softball at all levels, and a passionate proponent of women’s rights. One of her goals with TSG is to consider women’s needs. For coaches, Strange wants to make the experience family-friendly:
“I want this event to have a culture such that a coach can have a family in tow and that’s okay. Our society is transitioning so that you can be a mother and a breadwinner and not have to choose between these roles. How can I be an advocate for women in business or women in sport and not support the women who are trying to balance work and families?”
- Alison Strange
TSG gives head coaches passes for family members. “We learned,” Strange says, “that some coaches were leaving their kids at the hotel with grandma because they didn’t want to pay for everyone to get in. We want the kids to see their moms running the show, to see that empowering perspective of a woman in charge. We want those kids to grow up seeing women leading.”
Strange is close to signing a partnership with a national recreational vehicle brand so that TSG can have trailers at every field for new mothers. “When you’re nursing and you’re trying to pump in between games,” Strange declares, “it’s just craziness, and we want to help women who are new moms.”
It’s not just female coaches who get Strange’s attention. As one example of change she’s enacted, female umpires and male umpires each have their own rooms where they undress to put on their gear, rather than having, as many facilities do, one changing room for everyone.
“We’ve implemented an umpire academy,” Strange says, “and one of our focuses is on attracting young female umpires, particularly former players. This year, for DI, I gave instructions to our in-house assigner that at least one female umpire should be at every game. I want the female athletes to see female umpires — there’s a power to that position.”
While Strange is continually looking for small ways to improve TSG, in 2020 she instituted a big change. For the first time, DI teams have been invited under the TSG umbrella.
“After the Rebel Games ended in 2017,” she recalls, “other organizations tried to fill that DI market niche but weren’t really successful, and so we saw an opportunity. I had met Melissa Gentile years ago and wanted to do business with her and her DI event that she had been doing over the last decade in Madeira Beach. When Eastern Michigan cut her program [Gentile was the long-time head coach there], she ended up joining our organization. She had 38 teams her final year in DI at Madeira Beach; we came together, put a structure on it for her, and she now has 86 teams participating this year with TSG.”
When Strange took over as president of PFX seven years ago, the biggest complaint about THE Spring Games that she heard from coaches was ‘you’ve gotten too big,’ which she came to understand meant that TSG had lost the smaller tournament feel from a customer service perspective. But that wasn’t stopping more teams from wanting to come, and so Strange and her staff had to simply create that small-feel atmosphere with more teams.
“We wanted to make sure,” Strange says, “that we were avoiding a cookie-cutter model. I made a concerted effort to emphasize customer service as our priority. We have the teams, the softball complexes, the community support. We have everything needed and we just had to take care of everybody.”
Since Dot Richardson’s first overtures in 2007 toward DIII schools, the growth for TSG continues to evolve. With 508 teams this year, TSG ramped up hires to four full-time, year-round staff members, 39 temporary and seasonal staff. Every venue has a site supervisor, a gate manager, and so forth.
“The coaches and the market,” Strange says, “will tell us if we’re doing things right or not.” They’ve been speaking loudly and clearly for well over a decade now, saying ‘Yes, you are.’”