Home to Three Northern National Champions, Plover Fastpitch Stays Connected During Pandemic

April 01, 2020, 4:47 p.m. (ET)

The Plover Fastpitch organization is small, but proud. Plover is a community with a population of around 13,000 nestled on the Wisconsin River in central Wisconsin, two hours north of Madison. Despite not having a high school in Plover to play softball for, it is now home to the 2019 USA Softball Girls Class B Northern National Champions in not just one, but three divisions. It doesn’t stop there. The Plover Fastpitch Nationals 10U, 12U, and 16U fastpitch softball teams also claimed titles in the 2019 USA Softball of Wisconsin Class B State Championship to pave their way into the Northern National Tournament.

The Plover Fastpitch 10U, 12U, and 16U Nationals teams competed in the State Championship in Wausau, Wisc. on July 11-14 with the three teams combining for only two losses on the way to winning their respective state titles. The 10U Nationals team went unbeaten in Wausau, while the 12U Nationals team navigated through a 22-team field at the State Championship with an 8-1 record, beating New Berlin twice, once in the Championship Game and then in the “if-necessary” winner-take-all. The 16U Nationals team dropped just one game while recording six victories during their State Championship title run.

The celebration was cut short however, when the town was hit hard by storms that moved through the area a week after the State Championships leaving Plover residents with significant damage to their homes.

“There were high-speed straight-line winds,” said Plover Fastpitch Coordinator and 16U Nationals Assistant Coach John Jones. “Within the whole area it focused on Plover, there was a lot of damage, a lot of trees that went down, power outages, and a flood going on.”

“Our complex had a ton of damage to it,” Jones added. “We were still able to find some locations to practice at, but this happened basically a week before we had to leave for the [National] tournament, it was challenging. We were dealing with that, helping with clean up and then families had to pack up and go to the USA Softball Northern Nationals.”

In the middle of the town cleanup, the teams picked up and traveled to their respective locations with the support of their families and the community.

“As for the community, we couldn’t have asked for a better return,” said 12U Nationals Head Coach Chris Brooks. “Plover doesn’t have its own high school so moments like this are a little extra special for sports teams.”

Plover Fastpitch 10U Nationals team traveled to North Mankato, Minn. for the USA Softball 10U Northern National Championship with a season record of 23-1, primed for a title run. They opened the tournament with a 15-0, three inning run-rule victory followed by five additional run-rule victories to advance to the National Championship Game against Millard Fury. The Nationals stepped on the gas from the beginning, scoring eight runs in the bottom of the first inning and going on to win 13-0 in four innings to claim the title.

“I don’t think the kids (being 10 years old) understood how big of an accomplishment this was,” said 10U Nationals Head Coach Chad Newby. “They acted [the] same as other [tournaments], just with bigger trophies.”

Newby says the memories will last a lifetime for the team. “The players will always be able to look at the banner hung in our facility and be able to reminisce about that team,” he said.

At the USA Softball 12U Northern National Championship in Rapid City, S.D., Plover’s 12U team run-ruled the first six teams just as their 10U peers did to place themselves in the Championship Game as the last unbeaten team in the double-elimination tournament. Being crowned National Champions didn’t come without adversity for the young team, though. Plover fell to the Elite Slammers, 10-9, to force the “if-necessary” showdown. Plover held a 3-1 lead until the bottom of the sixth inning when the team rallied for six runs which ended with a score on a wild pitch to give Plover the National Title with a 9-1, walk-off victory. The Plover Fastpitch 12U Nationals finished the season with a 40-8 record and an unforgettable National Tournament run.

“I think as much as our players were excited, I also saw a real maturity in that there was so much satisfaction in accomplishing every goal they set in 2019,” Brooks said. “It’s one thing to set the bar high and push yourself, but the satisfaction of standing in South Dakota holding what you had committed to in January was priceless.”

The 16U Nationals team started the USA Softball 16U Northern National Championship in Bloomington, Ind. with five-straight victories, needing one more win to earn a spot in the National Championship Game. After falling to Esprit Metro Webber, Plover fought back with a 23-7 victory over Sting Elite to setup the rematch against Esprit Metro Webber. The 16U Nationals team earned two wins, 15-7 and 13-11 to claim their own Northern National Championship and complete the trifecta for Plover.

“It was a great way for this group to finish off the season,” said 16U Nationals Head Coach Todd VanderLoop. “It was truly a team effort. We really do stress on this team that no one person is more important than the team. Every game somebody different would step up to help us to reach our goals.”

Despite being a Class B softball organization, Plover holds themselves to a high standard and strives to give their players the best competition and experience, which showed last summer. Plover also has their own league who play games against each other during the week along with the traveling teams that compete in the State and Northern National Championships.

“This is all within the same league, we aren’t pulling from a larger area,” said Jones. “Our goal is to compete at the Class A level but not have the parents and families spend a bunch of money every year. We as a program, try to compete at a high level and create really good value making it enjoyable for the families and the kids. We created an indoor facility three years ago which has been one of the first Class B programs in the state to have an indoor facility which we are very, very proud of.”

Playing at a high level is important to the organization but the bonds made between players, coaches and families is a large part of Plover Fastpitch as well. While the championships meant a lot to everyone involved, the relationships mean even more.

“We’re a travel team but we’re very much a family,” said Jones. “Todd [VanderLoop] and I have coached the girls since they were nine years old. It’s at a different level in terms of those relationships, not only with the kids, but the kids’ siblings, their parents and extended family. It’s a lot more than softball.”

 

Jump to March 2020 and the Plover Fastpitch organization is having to endure the struggle and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A safe-at-home order has been issued for the state and Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers ordered the closing of public schools until April 24, leaving the high school softball season at the schools the Plover Fastpitch players attend in jeopardy.

“The players are concerned about the high school season, right now the season is suspended, not cancelled. But it’s not looking good,” said Jones. “Playoffs start the last week of May. If schools do open April 24, we’re looking at a four-week season going into playoffs. We’re trying to keep the kids positive and optimistic.”

“We all are devastated, as many of us are seniors and we just want one last chance to play high school softball and summer ball,” said Kennedy VanderLoop, a member of the 16U Nationals team. “Our facility that we hit at has temporarily closed so we have had to improvise for ways to work out and stay healthy for the season that will hopefully come soon.”

With the high school softball season in question and a future that hangs in the balance, keeping in touch during quarantine and getting reps in at home has been important for the players in the absence of team practices. The coaches and players alike agree that the relationships grown throughout the years and last summer’s championship runs have helped them through these grim times.

“We don’t practice together on Sundays as a team which is hard because we don’t get to see each other anymore,” said Jaden Jones, another member of the 16U Nationals team. “We have created such a strong bond through the hardships that lead to our success. Our teammates are some of our closest friends and we all find ways to communicate regularly through social media to check up on each other.”

“The girls stay connected through social media, mainly Snapchat,” said Newby regarding the 10U Nationals team. “Most of our players are multi-sport athletes and are too busy in the winter season to get everyone together, so we haven’t really had any full team practices since last fall. All the girls have been hitting and throwing when they are able to. But now, who knows what the future holds. Hopefully this doesn’t stay around long so we can get the season underway.”

The coaches remain optimistic in waiting out the pandemic at home, not being able to practice and interact in person gives the players a chance to be more creative with their time and to have fun with social media interactions together.

“We currently as coaches are working with them through video to help keep some workouts going,” Brooks said. “Even though during the season social media can be a negative, [but for] right now they can make all the team Tik Tok videos they want.”