Long fly ballplayers

Darcy MacRae
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Local athletes spend their weekends on travel teams

For six local softball players, weekends are not always a time to relax after a tough week at work or in school. Instead, they pack their bags Friday, jump on a plane and head to an International Softball Congress tournament somewhere in the United States before flying back to their homes in Newfoundland Sunday evening.

While playing for their respective club teams is fun, this schedule can become a grind by the time August rolls around. At the end of the day, it's the competitive nature of these men that's keeps them going back.

Ward Gosse pitches for the MinnDak Millers of Fargo, N.D., at weekend tournaments. Telegram file photo/Keith Gosse

For six local softball players, weekends are not always a time to relax after a tough week at work or in school. Instead, they pack their bags Friday, jump on a plane and head to an International Softball Congress tournament somewhere in the United States before flying back to their homes in Newfoundland Sunday evening.

While playing for their respective club teams is fun, this schedule can become a grind by the time August rolls around. At the end of the day, it's the competitive nature of these men that's keeps them going back.

"It's the level of ball you get to play," said Colin Abbott of St. John's, who has played on travel softball teams for the past 11 years and is one of the top power hitters in North America.

"The travel, it isn't like you're on vacation. You're there to play ball and it can be a bit hard at times. But when you get there, it's the top level of ball you can play. All the best ball players in the world gather on the weekends in these tournaments."

Abbott and Jason Hill both play for The Farm out of Madison, Wisc., while Blair Ezekiel and Stephen Mullaley are teammates with the Orillia, Ont., Quaker Riversharks. Ward Gosse suits up for the MinnDak Millers out of Fargo, North Dakota and Harold Kelly is a member of the Quad City Sox that plays out of a metro area straddling the border between Iowa and Illinois. Their air fare and accommodations are taken care of by their individual teams, leaving the players to concentrate solely on softball.

"It's as close as you're going to get to pro softball," Gosse said. "Some of these teams have huge budgets of $300,000-$400,000 ... In certain hotbeds, you'll get 600-1,000 people watching a championship game. It's a pleasure to play."

All six suit up in the Molson St. John's Senior Softball League during the week before leaving for travel tournaments on the weekend. This type of schedule ensures they can still spend time with their families during the summer and allows the local softball league to hang on to its top athletes.

"It bodes well for everyone," said Gosse.

Most of the Newfoundlanders suiting up south of the border were scouted by ISC club teams at national tournaments over the years and later invited to join one of the elite organizations. Others got a roster spot in the United States based on the recommendation of a fellow Newfoundlander already making an impact in the ISC.

"I knew what Jason Hill could do, so I put in a word for him on our team," Abbott said. "But these guys prove their worth, they're good players down there."

It's common practice for Newfoundland softball players to try to get more players from this province a spot on a travel team for the summer, but sometimes the lobbying isn't needed. Big-money teams in the United States are always looking for the best available talent, and if they read a story on the Internet or in a newspaper about a player that could help them, it's only a matter of time before they come calling.

"If they want you, they'll find your phone number or your e-mail address and go after you," said Ezekiel, who pitched a no-hitter for North Atlantic Marine in local softball this year, but is used primarily as a third baseman in ISC tournaments.

Given the opportunity, there are a number of players from this province who could play with ISC club teams, according to Gosse. Often during local games, he'll see a pitcher or a hitter have a solid game and start wondering how long it will be before he joins the ranks of Newfoundlanders already playing at the highest level of softball in the world.

"There's a lot of kids here that absolutely could," Gosse said. "You look at a team like Kelly's Jr. Canadians (2006 national champs). Some of those players have really come into their own ... There's a lot of talent in this league."

The fact players from this province are willing to travel all over the continent to face the toughest competition they can find is a testament to their heart, as well as their athleticism, said Ezekiel.

"It shows you the type of people we are," he said.

dmacrae@thetelegram.com

Organizations: International Softball Congress, Quad City Sox, Senior Softball League North Atlantic Marine

Geographic location: United States, Newfoundland, St. John's North America Madison, Wisc. Orillia Fargo, North Dakota Iowa Illinois

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