Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 19, 2024

Women’s pro softball rolling into town with Steam

The arrival of summer will bring a new spectator sport to the Scenic City: women’s professional fastpitch softball. (Key word: professional)

Soon, the sound of a grapefruit-sized ball smacking a catcher’s mitt and of a bat hitting the ball deep will be echoing through Frost Stadium as the Chattanooga Steam takes the field. The Steam are one of four teams that form the Association of Fastpitch Professionals, which is also in its inaugural season.

Collegiate fastpitch softball veteran Jill Higdon is a co-owner of the Steam, as well as one of the founders of the AFP. She also spearheads Connect Sports, a local company that focuses on youth softball events.

Higdon is at the plate assembling a team of post-collegiate players capable of standing strong against the Oklahoma City Spark, the Florida Vibe and the New York Rise. All three squads will be hosting the Steam this summer, as well as traveling to Chattanooga to take part in two tournaments: the Scenic City Pro Cup in June and the AFP Championship Cup in July. (Tickets are available at steamfastpitch.com.)

Here, Higdon discusses the formation of the Steam, who local fans can expect to take the field, and the enthusiastic support the Chattanooga community is already throwing behind her team.

How did you become the owner of a professional women’s fastpitch softball team?

“Chattanooga is a great softball town, which has allowed me to do events for youth since 2007. We’ve also hosted exhibition games at our youth events the last couple of summers. That led to us putting together a professional schedule to play three other independent teams: the Spark, the Florida Vibe and the New York Rise.”

What’s your background in softball?

“I started my career at Louisiana State University and then moved here in 1999 and finished up at Chattanooga State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I was a hitter and I played middle infield.”

Who’s working with you in the back office?

“Connect Sports has a crew that works on the youth sides of things; we’ve pulled some of them over to serve the Steam. Our head coach is Marty McDaniel, a Chattanooga native who was with the University of Tennessee for 17 years. He’s been to the World Series several times. Our pitching coach is Brandon Carr, who also coaches Chattanooga State. And our general manager is Donald Pickett, a Whitwell native. He coached for 20 years at the collegiate level and is the all-time wins leader at Northwestern State.”

Why is this the right time for the AFP?

“Professional softball is at an interesting point. There’s a void, and these four independent teams were looking for a purpose. So, we decided to collaborate, create this association, and give our players a reason to win games. The other three independent team owners have been great partners.”

Do you believe the fan support will be there?

“Chattanooga always pulls together a great crowd. UTC is having a really good season, so there are a lot of people at every game I attend. Chattanooga State is also filling seats. Lee University in Cleveland also has an excellent team this year and has added to the exciting atmosphere for softball in Chattanooga.”

Has the money the city has spent on venues for youth softball over the past couple of decades helped to nurture that excitement? In addition to Frost Stadium, there’s Warner Park and Summit Softball Complex.

“Frost Stadium, which the city owns and runs, is a big deal. Dalton has also spent a ton of money on softball fields. This has created a lot of opportunities for our best female athletes to choose softball.”

What draws people to watch fastpitch softball?

“It’s a fabulous spectator sport. It’s on a smaller field, which makes it more intimate, and there are 20 seconds between each pitch, so it moves quickly. Also, because we’re a new organization, we have the best players in the country. Jocelyn Alo is the biggest name in softball right now. She has the home run record for the NCAA. Of course, she’s playing for the Oklahoma City Spark.”

Can the Steam pilfer her before the season begins?

(laughs) “No, she’s very happy in Oklahoma City.”

What’s your strategy for silencing Alo’s batt?

“We’re in contract conversations with pitchers who can get Jocelyn out. Sydney Cheryl is another big name that plays for the Spark. We’re talking with pitchers we think can get her out, too. It’s going to be high level softball after we put our roster together. Some of those names are going to be familiar to fans.”

Such as?

“There’s a talent pool in Chattanooga, and we’re going to draw from it. We’ve signed Abbey Cheek, who was All-American at the University of Kentucky and is their all-time home run leader. Kaylee Tow was an All-American at Alabama, and Kaylee Busby was an All-American at Oklahoma State. Those are our prime-time players. We also have Pal Egan, who played at Florida, and Jennifer Michuda, who’s played international ball for the last five years.”

What qualifies the AFP as a professional association?

“The Steam is an independent team, as are the Vibe, the Spark and the Rise, and we worked diligently with the other teams to make sure we’re all on the same page regarding the rules.”

Talk about your upcoming tournaments and what spectators can expect.

“We’re doing two tournaments in Chattanooga. All four teams will play at Frost Stadium June 19-22 and will then return for a postseason event July 23-27. Tickets are available at steamfastpitch.com.”

Do you have sponsors?

“We’ll have the Scenic City Pro Cup and the Association of Fast Pitch Professionals Champion Cup. I’m looking for partners for both trophies. The AFP Champion Cup is in July, and I’m looking for a title sponsor. I’m also having conversations with people who are going to sponsor us on different levels.

“Window World is one of our partners, as are EPB and Toys South. New York Pizza Department is supporting us, too.”

NYPD is supporting the Steam and not the team from New York?

“That’s funny. I’ll have to throw that at the owner of the Rise.”