For love of the game: Express teams return to the diamond

Chi Suzuki of the Napanee Express U19 girls slides under the tag of Napanee Express U14 boys' Deke Osterhout during an inter squad game held at the Fairgrounds on Wednesday. Photo by Adam Prudhomme.

Adam Prudhomme

As players jogged onto the Richard Dickson ball diamond at the Napanee Fairgrounds on Wednesday evening, Softball Napanee had already guaranteed itself a win.

That’s not because the two teams squaring off were the Napanee U14 Express boys against the Napanee U19 girls. Rather the fact Express teams were back on the field and playing ball-even if it was just an inter squad exhibition-had to be looked at as nothing but a home run.

“Our goal has always been to give our athletes the opportunity to get back on the field in 2020 and fortunately we’ve been able to do that over the last week and it was great to see kids having fun and playing the sport they love, and that’s really what it’s all about,” said Stephen Paul, head coach of the U14 Express boys and member of Softball Napanee executive. “We certainly were planning for the worst in that we weren’t going to be back in parks, but with Phase 3 re-openings, it’s provided us the opportunity and guidelines to be able to do that. It was important for us as an organization because we always strive for the highest level of competition and to be able to get back on the field and working on skills and ensuring they don’t lose a full year was really important as we look to hopefully comeback full strength and defend our Canadian and provincial championships that we’ve had over the years.”

Softball Napanee’s return to game action was highlighted by a rainbow over the field. Photo by Adam Prudhomme.

There were some subtle differences seen during Wednesday’s game, such as a wider than normal strike zone to account for any rust pitchers might have and spectators sat spaced apart in the bleachers-but it wasn’t long before it felt like a normal pre-pandemic ball game. Even Mother Nature seemed to approve, providing a second inning rainbow that could be seen behind home plate, despite the absence of rain.

Lauren Kennedy gets set to deliver the first pitch to start the first live action Express game played at the Napanee Fairgrounds in almost a year. Photo by Adam Prudhomme.

“It was fun, we had a couple practices before (Wednesday) night but it was fun to be back at the fairgrounds and see all the familiar faces on both teams, parents and players. There was a lot of happy kids there and it was good,” said Scott Morrow, coach of the U19 girls. “That was the first game for both teams since probably August, almost a year basically. Some of us had a little stuff in the gym before that got shutdown. There was rust on both teams but overall it was pretty well played for the first outing in a year basically.”

The Express boys rallied for four in their final at bat to take the game 9-5. But no question both teams had to feel like they came out with a win.

“Doesn’t matter how old you are, you just want to play the game,” said Paul. “It doesn’t matter if it’s at a high level or just for fun. I think that’s something we learned through the pandemic.”

Amber Weese connects on a base hit to drive in a run. Photo by Adam Prudhomme.

Prior to the provincial emergency order that halted all organized sports in March, Softball Napanee had visions of a busy summer at the ballpark, hosting league games throughout the week for all its teams, from mite right up to junior. Throughout the season those teams were to travel across the province for qualifying tournaments with hopes of earning a spot at various national tournaments throughout Canada. Those plans were dashed in early spring and it wasn’t until the start of July a glimmer of hope emerged that there might be ball played in Napanee-if only in the form of inter squad games featuring Express teams taking on fellow Express teams.

“It’s a little bit disappointing with the caliber of teams that we have that we didn’t get the chance to compete this year, but the most important thing is we’re giving our kids the opportunity to have fun and get out and exercise and do a lot of things that they haven’t been able to do since March so that’s really what it’s all about,” said Paul.

Softball Napanee will now continue with practices, skill clinics, and inters quad games through August. Playing at least some ball will help the athletes develop and stay sharp for next season, when they hope to have a summer that is more like what they saw in 2019.

Though there’s no longer a championship banner to play for this year, Morrow says that hasn’t spoiled the game for his players.

“Being girls that are 17, 18 or 19 years old with other commitments, we’ve had a couple practices and the game and we had amazing turnouts,” said Morrow. “It just shows the love of the game and the respect and the friendship they have between each other to still continue.”

He credited Softball Napanee for making the most of the situation and salvaging what they could of the 2020 ball season.

“There’s so many other interests for kids, so to take a whole year off in a small community you just don’t have the numbers to replace them,” said Morrow. “It’s good to see everybody put the effort in to keep the kids interested.”

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