One of the great old traditions of Ohio high school sports is no more.
The state softball tournament has been moved from Brookside Park in Ashland to Firestone Stadium in Akron. It has never been held anywhere but Brookside Park in its 30-year history.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association made the decision at its board of control meeting last month. It came after a 12-member committee reviewed proposals from three cities – Ashland, Akron and Pickerington.
Firestone Stadium is home of the Akron Racers of National Pro Fastpitch, a women`s professional league operating in six cities. Firestone also hosts some high school regional tournament games.
Why the move?
“They wanted the â€˜Wow` factor,” said Donna Williams, state tournament director in Ashland for more than 20 years. She had been associated with the tournament in one capacity or another the entire time it was in Ashland.
“Because the Racers play there,” said Williams.
An attempt Wednesday to reach Roxanne Price, the OHSAA`s softball liaison, about the specifics of Akron`s proposal was unsuccessful. Among other advantages, Firestone has locker rooms, an umpires room, and concession stands under roof.
“I think maybe the Racers promised to come out to the games and sign autographs,” said Williams, who is one of the best-known figures in high school softball. “And Roxanne (Price) has ties to Akron, so I think it was a done deal.”
Ashland is losing more than a neat old tradition. Amy Daubenspeck, exective director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, estimated it is also saying goodbye to $800,000 a year that participating teams and their fans spent during the three-day tournament.
Reactions to the move are at best mixed among the three Lorain County coaches who won state championships at Brookside. Dave Leffew, the first to win one with Keystone in 1999, said he`s disappointed for two reasons.
“I have a lot of memories with Keystone at Brookside Park,” said Leffew, who is now the softball pitching coach at Ashland University. “It`s nostalgic. Brookside is a great venue. It`s just a nice place to go. It`s fun sitting there watching softball in that small-town atmosphere.
“From an AU standpoint, I liked having it there because it gave us a chance to see some of the best players in the state and them the chance to see the city and our facilities. I`d personally rather see it stay in Ashland, but I have mixed feelings.”
Elyria`s Ken Fenik directed the Pioneers to the Division I state title in 2002.
“My mouth just dropped when I heard about it,” said Fenik. “We played a lot of games on that field and to me, there is just so much history and so many memories there. I remember going there in 1994 when Sue (Cohagen) was still coaching. We were hammered in the semifinals by Westerville South and I thought to myself, â€˜I want to get back here again someday.`
“It`s such a great setting. It`s in a park and you can eat between games at picnic tables,” said Fenik, whose Pioneers were Division I runners-up the past two seasons. “But the main reason is that Donna Williams is an excellent tournament manager who dotted all the I`s and crossed all the T`s.”
“I was kind of sad to hear about it because we always enjoyed going to Ashland and playing in the state tournament,” said Keystone coach Jim Piazza, whose 2006 team won the Division II championship. “I guess I`m most sorry about Donna (Williams). She did a great job of running that tournament.”
“But it will be exciting for the kids to see Firestone Stadium,” added Piazza, who until last spring had directed the Wildcats to four straight trips to Ashland. “It`s a very nice facility. Hopefully we`ll get back to state so we can play on it – or wherever it is.”
There had been rumors that Ohio State would also submit a proposal. Had it moved to Columbus, the tournament would have been at Buckeye Field, the soon-to-be-rebuilt varsity softball facility. The current Buckeye Field, which opened in 1988, is to be torn down and a new one built as part of a $5.1 million renovation project.
“But they haven`t even broken ground yet,” Williams said.
The city of Ashland had plans to put up a new and larger press box at Brookside Park, to make dugout improvements and install a new home-run fence, she added.
The tourney will be in Akron for at least three years, 2008-10. Williams predicted after that, it will move again, this time to OSU.
Akron spent more than $1 million in 1999 to renovate Firestone`s covered grandstand and clubhouses, and expand seating from 1,800 to 4,000. The park, opened in 1925, was built by tire tycoon Harvey Firestone for industrial league teams.
Firestone is beautiful. It`s cozy and offers good sightlines. But the tradition is at Brookside Park, which also received significant upgrades in the past few years. Bottom line: it`s just a neat place to watch softball.
Fans can look forward to a veritable softball feast late in April. They can also look forward to being conflicted, because Lorain County`s two big invitational tournaments are scheduled for the same weekend.
The 10th annual Elyria Classic is scheduled for April 26 at the old Elyria West softball complex. And Keystone`s third annual Prebis Memorial Classic is scheduled April 25 and 26 at LaGrange Community Park.
That means that Elyria and Wellington, who were in the first two Keystone tourneys, won`t be there in 2008 because they`ll be playing in Elyria.
The conflict happened for a complex series of reasons. Elyria`s Fenik picked the last weekend in April because that`s when the Classic is always held. Keystone`s Piazza said he wanted to schedule his tournament a week earlier, but it would have conflicted with the annual Wendy`s Spring Classic in Ashland.
The Wendy`s tournament is one of the biggest and most prestigious in the eastern U.S. Elyria and Keystone, as two of Ohio`s top softball programs, have been regulars in recent years. But while Elyria will be back in 2008, Piazza said he was told his Wildcats will not be included this time.
“They told me it was because we didn`t make it back to state last year,” said Piazza, whose team was eliminated by Wauseon in a Division II regional semifinal.
Meantime, he said, he had already changed the Prebis tournament dates and Fenik was in possession of signed contracts from schools in the Elyria Classic.
Playing in the Elyria tournament, besides the Pioneers and Dukes, are Midview, Oberlin, North Olmsted, Mentor, Fairview, and Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary. St. Vincent-St. Mary won the tournament last spring.
Joining Keystone in the Prebis tournament are Hillsdale, defending Division I state champion Hudson, North Canton Hoover, Akron Hoban, Uniontown Lake, Canfield, Strongsville, Nordonia and Mercy High of Farmington Hills, Mich.
INDOORS AT CSU
Cleveland State is again hosting an 11-week indoor season for area high school teams. A record 36 teams, including Elyria, Keystone, Midview, Wellington and others open under the inflatable dome over Krenzler Field starting Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving.
CSU`s increasingly popular program has a waiting list of 20 teams this year. It costs $950 per team to get in. Area coaches say it is the least expensive of several indoor programs around northeast Ohio. And it is not as costly as it might seem when the fee is divided among a dozen or more players and their coaches.
An advantage of the CSU program is there are two full-size softball diamonds under the dome – and two games going at any one time. Most of the action is on Saturdays and Sundays. There is an end-of-season tournament the first weekend in February.
Pitchers and catchers can begin to practice on Feb. 25.
PIONEERS TO SIGN
Megan Bashak, Elyria`s No. 1 pitcher, and catcher Jen Bower will sign national letters of intent at 9 a.m. on Wednesday in the office of EHS principal Diane Quinn.
The southpaw Bashak, who pitched the Pioneers into state championship games the last two years, will attend Division I Cleveland State. Bower will play at Division II Mercyhurst in Erie, Pa.
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 r email@example.com.