by Dennis Dalman
Girls fast-pitch softball for young girls was slow to start in Sartell. Very, very slow.
Nearly 10 years ago, any Sartell girl 8-12 years old and interested in that sport was just flat out of luck. She would have to look high and low even to find out if there was a team in the area she could join. It was like groping in the dark, seeking the needle in the haystack, all dressed up and nowhere to go. Those girls would join other sports, forgetting all about their dreams of playing softball. As a result, the high-school softball program had few if any seed players to join it.
Then along came two fathers – Bill Davison and Rich Sylte – who got the ball rolling – slow at first and then faster, faster until in the past few years girls fast-pitch softball has become a smash hit, a local and widespread success.
During a June 20-21 fast-pitch tournament hosted by Sartell in Whitney Park, St. Cloud, Sylte and Davison took time to meet with the Sartell Newsleader and explain what an exciting adventure it was to watch fast-pitch softball grow by leaps and bounds throughout recent years.
Davison, who has lived in Sartell for 26 years, became the spearhead for fast-pitch softball because of his daughter, Jessica, who started playing baseball at the tender age of 7. When she was 9, her father formed a softball team for Sartell girls, and the team played in the Waite Park Summer Fast-pitch League. That was 12 years ago.
At about that same time, Sylte’s two young daughters, Bridget and Rebecca, wanted to play fast-pitch softball but had no idea where to find any teams. Sylte and Davison said these days it is easy to take for granted the power of the Internet. Now people can find virtually anything to do with fast-pitch softball and countless websites and Facebooks for teams. Back then, it wasn’t so. Fast-pitch softball was practically a “secret,” Davison explained. Sylte’s daughters finally began playing on a team they managed to locate in the area. That’s the time the two fathers became friends, as did their daughters, and they worked very hard to put fast-pitch on the map for girls of all ages, all skill levels.
In 2007, he worked with the St. Cloud Fast-pitch Summer League and convinced it to start up a summer program for girls 14 and under. It was a roaring success from the get-go.
From then on, the successes grew exponentially. By 2011, the Sartell Fast-pitch Association was formed, with the help of Kurt Stelton, an expert in the sports department at St. Cloud State University, Davison, Sylte, Matt Perry and Stefanie Gades. In 2014, SFSA after enormous amounts of paperwork and bureaucratic frustrations, became a 501c3 status, allowing people to donate money tax-free to the organization.
The SFSA mission is to provide opportunities for players of all ages and skill levels to enjoy playing fast-pitch softball. It also makes possible weekend travel teams for fall and winter softball. And for players after high school, the program offers the chance for them to meet college coaches and help them in the recruiting process.
Thanks to SFSA’s efforts, girls in the Sartell softball program can play up to 30 games each summer, 12 in the fall and eight in the Winter Dome League at SCSU. They also have a chance to play in state and national tournaments. The quality of the players has been strengthened hugely because of the many chances for increased playing time.
By adding teams for younger players (8-U, 10-U, 12-U), along with the 14-U and 16- U teams, the SFSA program has grown from 60 players in 2013 to 132 players this year.
Both Sylte and Davison often quote the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams about “If you build it, he (they) will come.” They know from their decade of “building things” that the quote couldn’t be more accurate.
As soon as Davison coaxed the St. Cloud league to add teams for younger girls, the program began to expand as more and more younger girls realized, through word of mouth and later through the Internet that they would have opportunities to play.
Year after year, especially during the early years, Davison and Sylte had to do enormous amounts of networking and coordination as they constantly worked to strengthen parental involvement, which is the solid foundation beneath the fast-pitch program.
They had to fine-tune practice and playing schedules, set fees, hire umpires and determine team formations.
“We have super-positive feedback from parents,” Sylte said.
Other duties, some of them tangled and complicated, have become easier throughout the years, with more involvement, networking, coordination and volunteers. Fields have to be maintained, gear has to be secured and funds have to be raised (often from sales of sunflower seeds and jerky treats). Grants have helped, too, such as a $5,000 Minnesota Twins grant, matched by the school system that made possible some field amenities, such as electricity to the dugouts of the four fields at Sartell Middle School. Soft-pitch teams practice on those fields at 6 p.m. every Tuesday.
Other improvements included grading one field that tended to get soggy, obtaining batting cages and pitching machines. Fundraising made it all possible, as well as company sponsors of the teams. Each sponsor’s team members wear the name of the sponsor on the back of their jerseys.
It’s not just local fast-pitch teams that have expanded so quickly. At state tournaments, there are about 180 teams 12-U eligible for competition each year and about 70 16-U teams.
The “Sartell Swarm” program has 11 teams: one 16-U, one 14-U, three 12-U, three 10-U and three 8-U.
Even though their daughters are now college students (Jessica Davison plays softball at the College of St. Benedict), Davison and Sylte, who became involved in fast-pitch because of their daughters, are still passionately committed to the Sartell program, making it better and better every year for more and more girls.
Davison is club director of the SFSA; Sylte is club commissioner. Its operations director is Becky Lundgren, its resource director is Lisa Specht and its finance director is Gades.
For more about the program, including how girls and their parents can register for it, go to www.sartellfastpitch.com.