The 2010 National Pro Fastpitch championship concluded in late August with the Florida Pride topping the Chicago Bandits for the league title. But that wasn't the end for many of the league's elite players.
NPF President/Commissioner Cheri Kempf had initially proposed the idea of a spring season tour for her league's all-star team, but NCAA rules require member schools to count such a contest as a competition date, although it would not count as part of their Won/Loss record or provide any statistics for the season.
"I had a couple coaches mention that a tour would fit very well in the fall," said Kempf. "They need scrimmages at that time of year and we found plenty of schools open to playing this 'All-Star' team. It has been a lot of fun."
The tour, sponsored by the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA), features a team made up of an ever-rotating collection of NPF stars.
"We sent out a letter to every player [in the league]," said Kempf, "and we asked them to respond with their willingness and their availability. From there, it's what fits where. Most of them have jobs that they are obligated to for at least nine months and they are not able to get away. We have had a core of maybe five players who have been to a lot of places but for the most part, it has been a revolving door with a different group of players every weekend."
The person in charge of managing that revolving group of players on a day-to-day basis is the NPF's Vice President of Development, Gaye Lynn Wilson.
"For me, personally, it has been a chance to get back on the field," said Wilson, whose last coaching opportunity was as an assistant coach at Florida in 2000. "To be on the field with some of the best players in the world has been a tremendous experience. I've gotten to see a lot of schools and softball stadiums that I hadn't previously had a chance to visit."
The NPF has been able to advantage of the infrastructure of media coverage for the collegiate athletics.
"People may be surprised," said Kempf, "but I'll be the first to say that right now the biggest competitive softball game in America, in the world, is college softball. They have a great product. They have a great pitch. They publicize it well. For us, to have our announcement on their websites is great. We want to reach their audiences, which are educated softball fans, and broaden the awareness that a professional league exists and that it truly is the highest level of softball."
The tour started on September 30 at UMKC, followed by stops at Missouri-Western and Nebraska. A standing-room-only crowd at Arizona's Hillenbrand Stadium was next, followed by trips to New Mexico State, UTEP and New Mexico. Following a week's break, it was onward to Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Tulsa. The tour resumes tonight in Athens, Ga., against the Georgia Bulldogs. (full schedule)
"It's been exciting from our end," said Kempf. "I think our players have really enjoyed it and I think they have been exciting to the crowds that have seen them play and it has been exciting for the teams playing against them."
The tour's September 12, stop in Oxford, Miss., was no exception. Ole Miss set an attendance record at their facility as the stands were packed for the game between the NPF team and the 2010-11 Rebels.
"When I first heard about [the tour], I thought it was a great idea," said Ole Miss head coach Missy Dickerson. "It allowed our kids to have an opportunity to play against some of the best. How many times can you say that you went out and played against 15 All-Americans or Olympians?"
Building the profile for the sport of softball in Mississippi was another motivating factor for Dickerson.
"We ran that game in conjunction with a clinic," said Dickerson. "I think it allowed us to show a lot of kids what they could accomplish if they stuck with it and got better and advanced in our sport."
The opportunity to play this sort of all-star team also appealed to Dickerson as part of the development of her squad for the upcoming 2011 season.
"In order for us to get better," said Dickerson, "we have to play the best. You can't get much better than the team that we faced."
Plucked from her administrative duties with the NPF to coach this traveling team, Wilson has also had a completely positive experience with the tour.
"Being around these athletes has been a wonderful experience for me," said Wilson. "I've had a chance to watch them make some incredible plays. They're good people and they're fun, so I've enjoyed it."
Having experienced the tour first-hand, Wilson believes that the NPF's goals with the tour are being realized.
"I think it's working," said Wilson. "We haven't had thousands of people at every stop but at several of them we have. I've had people come up to me and say 'I think it's a wonderful thing that you're doing' and they weren't aware that the pro league was still playing. Some weren't aware there even was a pro league, so the more people we reach, the better off we are.
"It is keeping the pro league in people's minds throughout the year," said Wilson. "From September through probably December, we are showcasing the top talent in our league. Most times it's the top talent in the world. People are coming to watch us now. Hopefully right after the Women's College World Series they'll continue to watch us in June, July and August."
"[The tour] has exceeded my expectations," said Kempf. "I thought it would be fun. I thought it would be a unique experience, and I thought it would be a chance for us to broaden awareness of the league. But I can tell you, it has really been a pleasure to work with the college coaches that got involved with us and to go on campuses with this team. It has been a very well-rounded experience.
"So many of the colleges have included a little bit more. We played in front of a standing-room only crowd at Arizona. We went to Ole Miss and it was a sellout that broke their attendance record. We just came from Oklahoma and it was homecoming weekend. They had their alumni game, and our players got to be on the sidelines at the OU football game. They've stayed at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. We have been treated so well by everyone. It has been neat to see our players just play loose and enjoy themselves. Of course they are still playing to win, but it's not that crazy focused pressure situation. It's a really light situation where you still get to see their talent. They're really having a blast out there."
Kempf and the NPF intend to continue providing opportunities for players to continue beyond their collegiate careers. She also hopes to repeat this tour in future years.
"We would love to do it again," said Kempf. "Once people started hearing we were doing it, we had several people say they really wanted to be included. We just added another date at the end of the tour, but at some point you have to stop. It's definitely something we want to continue as a goodwill tour. We're always trying to broaden the opportunities for our players. This is certainly one of them."
The NPF's "Back to School" tour continues through mid-November.