published Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Wiedmer: ASA softball teams not created equal

Having recently turned 16, Summer Laredo is yet to earn her driver's license in her home state of California. But in the eyes of her irrepressible grandfather, "Pops," that was all the more reason for her to, in his words, "Get to drive 600 miles."

So that's what she did last week during the San Diego Renegades' 40-hour drive to the ASA 16-Under Nationals softball tourney at the Summit.

Accompanied by Paul Laredo, her father and coach, the 74-year-old Pops -- "We'd stop at rest stops instead of hotels because we couldn't wait to get here," he said -- his 4-year-old Chihuahua Precious and two teammates, Summer successfully navigated Interstate 40 through part of New Mexico and all of Texas before returning the wheel of the Chevy Express 2500 van to her dad.

"Just seeing all the different states, driving through the sunsets," said Summer. "It was a lot of fun."

Wednesday wasn't fun for the Renegades. They fell 4-0 to the Southern Force, which may be the ultimate dream team of the 174 teams from 38 states that began the week.

While all of the Renegades' 14 players hail from the greater San Diego area, the Force's 14 girls come from five different states -- Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, South Carolina and Alabama.

"What happens is that each player works out on their own at home," said Greenwood, Ind., resident Tim Gray, whose 16-year-old daughter Brittany is the Force's top pitcher. "Then everybody meets up at the tournaments. From June until this coming weekend it's been almost every weekend all summer."

And why would Brittany's parents willingly run through as much as $10,000 a summer and almost all of their vacation time for their daughter to play softball all over the country with teammates from four other states?

"It gets her great exposure in front of very competitive teams."

That exposure was evident at the Summit, where no fewer than five college coaches ranging from Texas Southern to Wichita State to Rutgers asked Gray for an information sheet on the Force roster that included ages, phone numbers and respective high schools.

"I think Brittany already knows several schools she's interested in," said Gray of his rising sophomore at Greenwood (Ind.) Community High School. "But she's keeping it to herself right now. We've already got several college visits planned this fall."

Given that Gray has already turned in a 68-mph fastball and consistently throws in the mid-60s, her college choices should be many.

But despite Wednesday's score, that doesn't mean the Renegades won't one day play collegiately. After all, California annually produces the most collegiate talent in the country and the Renegades are a travel squad consisting of three all-star teams that all finished in the top 10 in their state tournament.

"We didn't know until three weeks ago that we'd be here," said Doug Gilliland, whose 15-year-old daughter, Hannah, plays second base. "Our whole family used to go to these tournaments, but it's gotten too expensive. So just Hannah and I came here, and my wife stayed home with our other daughter and son."

Yet Gilliland, who's a civil rights attorney, and his wife, a law professor, can afford to travel, even if this year's summer schedule included weekends in Las Vegas, Florida, New Jersey and Colorado.

Not all of the Renegades are so fortunate.

"We had one girl have to stay back for financial reasons," said Dereck Engram, who's helped coach the team for more than a decade, even after his own daughter no longer played. "That never would have happened five years ago. Everybody -- parents and siblings included -- would have been here."

But the ones who are here are having a good time. The Grays have already been to the Aquarium and intend to do more sightseeing. Summer and her Renegades teammates have taken a "ghost tour" and a "ducks tour" and sampled more than a few fried pickles at the Southside Saloon.

"And I can't wait to try the Moon Pies," said Summer.

Then it's back into Pops' van for the 40-hour, 2,168-mile drive back to San Diego with Precious. No wonder the Renegades' favorite video on the way here was "The Hangover."

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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