Like kids in a candy store.
The Cornerstone Kinzua Crush can't get enough softball.
Led by coaches Ed Loutzenhiser, Terry Wilson, Kevin Walter and Mark Bupp - the Warren Area High School varsity softball coach, these parents think competition is a good thing.
Photo courtesy of Carl Leichtenberger
The Kinzua Crush under-14 travel fastpitch softball team poses after winning the 2011 Gamblers Lady Luck Fastpitch Softball Tournament in June in Niagara Falls, N.Y. The Crush will compete this week at the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) 14U Eastern Nationals in Sterling, Va. From left, in front, are Abby Courtney, Alexa Bupp, Kaitlin Ishman, Meghan Loutzenhiser and Paige Wilson and, in back, Kathryn Lobdell, Emily McJunkin, Elyssa Horn, Emily Hair, Jenna Fellows, Haylie Birt and Kennedy Walter.
As long as their kids are saying "more, more, more," they're right there with them.
"A lot of these kids played on the Little League all-star team that placed third in the state, and won states (in two consecutive years)," said Loutzenhiser, who has daughters that play travel ball. "The biggest thing they loved about (Little League all-stars) is that they got to play against other communities, and their best players. They actually came to us and said, 'Could we do this all the time?'
"We were sitting around a bonfire after an all-star game and said, 'Let's try it and see how they do.' We knew all about travel ball, we knew it was out there. There are thousands of teams.
Kinzua Crush provides high school feeder system:
Another thing the Kinzua Crush travel softball teams have started to provide is a feeder system for high school softball teams in the county. Warren Area High School varsity coach Mark Bupp is also a coach for Kinzua Crush. We asked him a couple questions about the traveling fastpitch softball team:
Q: How did you get involved with the Kinzua Crush?
A: When I became head coach at the high school we held a meeting to gauge the interest of area kids interested in playing travel ball as a way to supplement the local Little League program. I thought it would be great to have teams at multiple age levels. We had several individuals that worked with some of the older kids in local leagues and local tournaments. One of those individuals, Ed Loutzenhiser, stepped up to manage the 12U team. He was very aggressive with scheduling and fund-raising. After a couple of seasons, the 12U group decided that they wanted to play in more travel tournaments and it has grown from there.
Q: How do you think it impacts the high school team you coach or serves as a feeder system to your team?
A: To be honest, we are just starting to see the impact of this effort as this year's freshman class has the first group of kids that have had a lot of experience playing the travel schedule. I think it provides another alternative to kids to enhance their skills by practicing a lot (starting in January), and playing a lot of ball through the summer.
Q: Now, as a parent, what has it contributed to Alexa's game?
A: It has afforded her the opportunity to meet individuals that she otherwise probably would not have met. A great example is the interaction with (Olympic gold medalist) Crystl Bustos and her organization. It has also provided her with opportunities to enhance not only physical skills but also work on the mental side of the game. She has been able to see the level of competition that will exist as she attempts to further her softball career post high school.
Q: This Kinzua Crush team started four years ago, but Ed said they actually had travel ball 10 or 15 years ago and then it went away.
Does it just depend on the group of kids willing and able to compete at this level, or more so the parents willing to run it?
A: This thing is a team effort and commitments from both are required. You also need to have financial support from within the community to allow this to happen at the levels we currently exist at. There is no way we could be traveling to Eastern Nationals if that did not exist.
"Teams that we play from the metro areas, they'll have hundreds of kids try out for their teams," said Loutzenhiser. "We've had a tryout where we had 15 kids show up for 12 spots. We're always seeking the opportunity to take a look at other players between the ages of 11 and 16 who might be interested."
The talent was there with this group, judging by the finish in Little League all-star tournaments, and so was the desire.
"Our last tournament last year, Aunt Rosie's (Amherst, N.Y.), there are teams from Massachusetts, Canada, and (we) came out the last day and played five games that day and... they are all crying, saying, 'Can we please play another tournament?'"
And play and play and play they did.
On Tuesday, the Kinzua Crush under-14 fastpitch softball team travels to Sterling, Va., to compete in the 52-team Eastern National Championships of the Amateur Softball Association (ASA).
It will be the biggest traveling softball tournament the Crush has played in, and the farthest trip.
That's fine by Meghan Loutzenhiser, who looks forward to trips with her "extended family."
The players do everything together and, once the season's over, Meghan plans "team reunions," which are camp outs in her back yard. Kids will be kids.
So far this year, Kinzua's 14U team is 25-7-1 in six tournaments, with two tournament titles and one third-place finish. The team plays mainly in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio (NSA- and ASA-sanctioned ball).
It's gotten so popular that the Kinzua Crush added an under-12 team this year and, with some of the under-14 team getting older, possibly an under-16 team next year.
Travel ball is nothing new, and it's nothing new to girls softball in Warren County. Back when Keith Confer and Herm Atwood coached the Warren Dragons varsity softball team, they had a travel team in the summer. Maybe it's no coincidence the Dragons finished second in the state in Class AAA high school softball in 2000.
"We talked about what Keith Confer and Herm Atwood had done with a team in the past and felt we had the talent and commitment, so we gave it a go," said Loutzenhiser.
The main question was, "Could we sustain it, financially?"
It costs a team, on average, about "$400 a tournament and then you have all the equipment," said Loutzenhiser. "The (additional) expense is parents coming down and staying in a hotel. None of this would be possible without the tireless support of the parents, financially and emotionally. We spend a lot of time at ballparks and we have the best parents around. The girls are going to look back someday and realize just how fortunate they have been."
Loutzenhiser said the team gets tremendous support from local-sponsor Cornerstone Lounge, and does fund-raisers.
"We're humbled by the financial support and the number of people in the community that follow these girls," he said.
It's so much more than just stats.
"We take a grill and everybody brings food items," said Loutzenhiser. "We genuinely enjoy each other's company. Between practice and tournaments, we spend four or five days a week together, and still do additional non-softball activities together. We have a saying we've used for quite a few years, 'It's your team against our family.' They've been playing together for so long, they are family. We've got kids from different schools. We've got kids from New York. How quickly they accept each other.
"We're a small-market team, often playing against teams from larger metro areas with more players to pick from. When we first started, we were often asked, "where are you guys from,'" said Loutzenhiser. "Now the girls have made a name for themselves and are well-known in their circuit. We keep stretching to see how good they really are. Because we play on the road, most people from our area have not seen them play and probably don't have an appreciation for the level these ladies play at. It's very much like what you see at the college level on TV, just on a smaller scale. There are very few walks, it's very fast-placed, fundamentally teams are very solid."
To get to this level, "we usually begin training inside sometime in January and then play through August," said Loutzenhiser. "They train hard, yet have fun doing it together."
There aren't many detractors, according to Loutzenhiser, because these kids, despite their age, are going to find a way to play because they love it. Nobody's pulling their arms.
"Most of these kids have stuff set up in their basement, or in a back room somewhere," he said. "I would say this is probably a substantial part of their development... but we use practice to evaluate, and if you're not working at home, it shows. These kids have had success all along. They're putting in the work."
"(Competition,) just the confidence level it brings," he said. "Being able to go to state and national tournaments. There's a quiet confidence. They're not cocky. They get reigned in just because of the level, nobody here's a bad player.
"I can't stress enough how driven it is by the kids," said Loutzenhiser. "They walk into that gym with huge smiles on their faces. They're happy to see each other. It's just a special thing. You're going to compete the rest of your life. They're learning how to work together as a team. They're learning how to fail. You're not always going to win. You're not always going to have a great practice. You're going to strike out. You're going to make errors in the field. The difference is, striking out, keeping your head high, jogging back to the dugout, jogging past the girl getting ready to bat and telling her what you just saw. They are working together as a team. It teaches them so many life skills."
And in terms of their development:
"It's staggering (the improvement)," he said.
At Thursday's practice at the Farm Colony, the 14U team got a special treat. Division II college softball pitcher and former Warren standout Emily Lobdell threw batting practice to help them prepare for this week's tournament. It's the kind of thing this team does for fun.
13-year-old Paige Wilson took her deep, and the team - and Lobdell - converged on Paige for bear hugs.
"These are great girls that come to the ball field with a smile on their face every time," said Loutzenhiser. "They carry themselves with a quiet confidence, are humble and filled with respect for the game and their opponents, yet fierce competitors."
A little of what the Kinzua Crush coaches teach them.
"We look for improvement, being able to improve their emotions, we stress the mental part of the game, too," said Loutzenhiser. It doesn't do any good to spend half the time on batting, half on fielding and then 30 seconds on the mental aspects of the game, he said.
"The girls are giving back, helping younger players, volunteering in the community, individually and as a team," he said. "They are great ballplayers, but even better people, playing a game, but learning life's lessons -- teamwork, benefits of hard work and doing the little things right every time, bouncing back after failure and never giving up.
"Personally, my involvement with this group of young people has been an absolute blessing, for myself and my family" said Loutzenhiser. "They are everything that is good about youth sports and are a perfect example of good citizens both on and off the field."
The list of players going to Eastern Nationals includes: Haylie Birt, Alexa Bupp, Kaitlin Ishman, Meg Loutzenhiser, Abby Courtney, Jenna Fellows, Emily Hair, Emily McJunkin, Elyssa Horn, Kathryn Lobdell, Kennedy Walter, and Wilson.
Alexa Bupp pitched Warren into the District 10 Class AAA championship last year as a freshman, replacing the graduated Lobdell, and said the Crush travel tournaments, especially the state tournament in Drifton, have helped her get more and more used to pressure situations.
Birt is entering ninth grade at Eisenhower High School.
"We've made some pretty good memories at tournaments," she said. "We have a lot of fun. Every experience is a good one with them."
Birt has been on the team all four years and was also on the third-place Little League team with this group. It becomes worth it, she said, when you see her daughter play in an international tournament against an all-French-speaking opponent.
Her mother, Nancy, said Haylie was introduced to coaches Loutzenhiser and Bupp all those years ago, and her daughter improved so much during Little League all-stars.
Haylie loves softball so much, they actually have to force her to take time off every year, Nancy said. She said some people think they push her too much, but it's actually the opposite.
"We tell her, 'The day your heart is not in it anymore, you're done,' but she still loves it so much," said Nancy. "They're doing what they love to do."