They are the “Girls of Summer.”
They have grass stains on their uniforms and dust on their elbows. Their foreheads drip with sweat, and their ponytails are slightly askew by the end of the night.
They laugh when they win, and they might even cry when they lose, but they won’t ever give up until the very last girl gives it her all as the pitch comes roaring toward her.
The “Girls of Summer” take delight in their own version of “America’s Game.” Fast-pitch, slow-pitch, it really doesn’t matter. This is softball at its finest, and the girls involved in league play throughout Fort Dodge today cannot even imagine a time when it wasn’t so.
“We just love to play,” the girls say, speaking in nearly one voice as team members pile on to the field and begin digging out their practice equipment. A few dedicated family members stand on the sidelines under the hot sun.
But recall, if one will, the fact that girls from not-so-distant generations never had the opportunity to become the “Girls of Summer.”
One will never know how many of these girls’ great grandmothers only wish they could have known the thrill of catching a pop fly, throwing a curve ball that slices past a batter like butter on a Sunday biscuit, or hitting one clean out of the park.
It wasn’t so long ago, that girls didn’t do such things.
Nope, “Girls of Summer” in that time sipped iced tea in the shade of a front porch.
“Girls of Summer” didn’t run, or jump, and would never get dirt on their clothing sliding into second.
“Girls of Summer” cheered from the stands for the boys on the field.
Well, boys, make room on the field — the girls are here to stay!
Pride Softball is the mantra of the Fort Dodge Girls Fast pitch Association. The group organizes competitive team and tournament play for girls ranging from 8 to 14 years old throughout Webster County. While the league takes practice and play to a new level of competition, what the girls really talk about most is having fun in the summer sun.
“I just enjoy the whole idea of it,” says Molly Hartman.
Hartman may be only 12 years old, but she already has five years of experience on the field. Still, it isn’t just the play on the field that matters most in this league.
“I really like spending time with my friends and playing for the fun of it,” Hartman adds.
Her favorite position on the field is second base.
“I’ve been playing it a lot, and I like it,” she says.
But how to cover second base isn’t all she’s learning. Lessons learned on the field often translate into everyday living and even the work world that awaits these young women in the future — even if that day seems so far away as they gather for play on a summer evening.
“There’s sometimes stress when you’re having an off day. But you just focus on making sure one bad play doesn’t make another one, and relying on your teammates to pull you back up,” Hartman says.
The camaraderie of team play is a social skill often denied to girls of previous generations. Today’s female athletes are, in large part, all daughters of Title IX.
Passed by the U.S. Congress as part of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972, Title IX forbade discrimination on the basis of gender at schools and universities and was responsible for opening up vast opportunities for women, including sporting opportunities.
Today’s “Girls of Summer,” well, they can’t imagine it any other way. And they really aren’t here to talk about politics; they just want to play ball.
Bre Tjebben is going in to eighth grade this fall and has been playing softball for five years.
“The hardest thing for me is probably hitting from different pitchers and different teams,” Tjebben says.
Her favorite role is on the other side of the equation, from high atop the pitcher’s mound.
“I like to pitch. I have three different pitches: a fastball, change-up and drop ball,” she says. “The change-up is my best pitch; it’s a slower pitch, and I always like throwing it.”
Tjebben spends hours each week practicing her pitch, as well as other facets of the game. It keeps her fit, healthy and always on the move.
“I enjoy getting outside,” she says. “And I just also enjoy being with my teammates.”
Like many of the girls, she’s active in a number of sports, ranging from volleyball to basketball, and simply being outside as much as possible.
Tjebben’s mother, Chrissy Tjebben, is president of the association and a strong believer in the value of sporting activities and physical fitness.
“We try to teach them the importance of sportsmanship and becoming good people,” she says, emphasizing that it’s much more than just softball.
“We do a lot of things in the community, like taking them to nursing homes at Christmas to go caroling. We always want to teach them to give back to the community,” she says.
As a parent, she loves watching the girls play and observing how they develop as players over the years.
“They gel well as a team, and the coaches do a really good job of teaching them individually and working with all the different personalities,” the president says.
Winning games and helping each girl hone their own physical skills is always the goal, but it’s accomplished in an environment that encourages a lot of laughter along the way.
“They have a lot of fun. It’s more than softball, and playing games and traveling. They have a lot of fun with their friends,” she adds.
Of course, the travel aspect is a popular one with the girls — as well as many of the parents.
“I like staying in hotels with my teammates and bonding with them,” says Hailey Anderson.
At 13, Anderson has been playing with the association for about three years and looks forward to many more years on the field.
“My favorite position is left field. I like catching pop flies, knowing when to go backwards and forwards, and knowing how to catch it,” she says.
As for motels, most games are day trips, but tournaments in Omaha and other cities occasionally make for a great family get-away.
Chris Crooks-Rocha enjoyed playing softball herself growing up and now takes pleasure in watching her daughter, Santana, take to the field. Crooks-Rocha appreciates the association for the approach it takes in teaching the fundamentals of the game.
“It’s taught her so much more than I ever could have taught her,” the proud mom says. “Her talents have just soared.”
As a family, Crooks-Rocha and her husband enjoy traveling and supporting the entire team.
“All the families just have a lot of fun,” she says.
In addition to the fun and physical fitness, Crooks-Rocha sees her daughter growing as a person through involvement in sporting activities.
“She’s forming friendships, learning skills and trust, how to take orders, learning how to take criticism, learning the game of softball and learning to become a better player,” she explains.
Staci Miller is another mom and former softball player herself who is proud to pass on the tradition to her daughter Tehya.
Miller serves as vice president for the association and takes pride in seeing all the girls grow as players and individuals. She notes that the girls actually practice for about eight months out of the year, taking their skills inside when the weather demands.
Softball, Miller notes, is a game that lends itself well to building friendships and bringing families together.
“Just being together, and watching how the girls enjoy each other and play with each other,” makes all the hours of practice worthwhile, she notes.
Daughter Tehya says having her mother so heavily involved is OK.
“She supports me in what I do, pumps me up when I get down,” the younger Miller says.
Softball and baseball are fun for the entire Miller family, as Tehya’s twin brother comes to the batting cage to practice while the girls play.
“I can throw better, and I’m a better catcher,” she says teasingly of her brother. “But he’s the better hitter,” she acknowledges.
For those “Girls of Summer” of generations’ past, competing with a brother in any field of endeavor — let alone one of physical prowess — would have been unheard of. Fortunately, most “Boys of Summer” today love a good challenge.
The “Girls of Summer” have truly arrived.
They bunt, they pitch and they even slide home. They build strong bodies and stronger spirits — win or lose. These “Girls of Summer” aren’t afraid of a little sweat on their brow, a little dirt on their knees, and they are learning a lot more than just a game played on a diamond.
They are learning about life.
“We want them to grow as people, as well as softball players,” notes association president Chrissy Tjebben.
A grassy field in the sunshine is a great place to start.