The soon-to-be Glenwood Middle School eighth grader plays in the Land of Lincoln Junior Olympic Softball league one night each week, and in tournaments on weekends.
Sydney’s softball teammates have become some of her closest friends. Playing both pitcher and second base, she practices almost every day. But, while, “it’s good to win,” the most important part is having fun.
The girls in the league work hard and are competitive, but it’s spending quality time with friends that they say defines play in the organization.
Softball is a way of life for many area families, who spend their summer nights and weekends at the University of Illinois Springfield-owned softball complex on South 11th Street. The season may stretch into cool-weather months for families with a player on a competitive traveling team.
“The players show a lot of passion, coaches too. Heck, the parents are very supportive as well,” said Heath Erwin, assistant director for the Land of Lincoln Junior Olympic Softball organization.
The softball complex is busy with balls being thrown, batted or caught. Land of Lincoln hosts 500-600 league and tournament games each summer.
This summer, there are 54 teams between four age divisions. Teams are responsible for their own tryouts, which usually take place in the fall. However, the league helps players connect with teams that still have openings. The players, ages 10 to 18, grow up at the fields — with the help of a small army of volunteers, parents, coaches and others who make sure not just that the games go on, but that the complex is a welcoming place for all visitors.
Before games begin
While the kids are focused on the games, Erwin is committed making everything run smoothly.
It takes a great deal of work to get the fields and facilities in place for the weekday league games and weekend tournaments.
“At that age, all they want to do is play. They’re not worried about how that happens,” said Erwin, who spends up to eight hours a day prepping the fields.
When the summer sun hits, game days can be brutally hot for both players and staff. Thus, Erwin and his grounds crew arrive at the fields between 7 and 8 a.m. to beat the heat. The crew fixes, shapes and maintains the 19-acre complex and its eight fields.
They push water off the dirt if needed, use a tractor to level the field, drag the dirt and then rake any spots.
They then chalk the infields and paint the outfield lines. In addition to cleaning the restrooms, the crew has to mow the grass two times per week. It can take as little as 20 minutes per field — but if there’s been enough rain, which has been the case this spring, it may take up to 45 minutes.
“You do stay busy,” Erwin said.
Between games, the grounds crew fixes fields and restocks bathrooms to “keep it as clean as we possibly can out here,” Erwin said.
With 150-200 players, parents, siblings and grandparents on any given night, “It’s pretty busy,” Erwin said.
The pre-7 a.m. wake-up call proved tough for Maddie Rockford on her first day working the fields. The Southeast High School junior-to-be plays softball, but she had no clue what went into getting the fields ready before the task fell to her. She’s at the fields early in the morning, dragging and raking the dirt to get the complex ready to go.
Shelley Lynch arrives at the fields each night before most any players. She runs the concessions.
Lynch grew up around softball — her dad managed a men’s fastpitch team. During the summer, she works four to five hours Tuesday-Thursday and 10-12 hours on weekends.
“I love it,” Lynch said. “I like to work.”
The best part of the job is waiting on the customers, selling them popular items such as hot dogs and Minute Maid push-up pops.
“We see the same people over and over again,” she explained.
Her husband, Dale Lynch, started as umpire-in-chief for the Land of Lincoln organization in 2001. He played men’s fastpitch and then started umpiring.
“I just love fastpitch softball,” he said.
Dale Lynch is in charge of getting the umpires to the games. Last summer, he used 75 different officials throughout the season.
Creating the schedule relies on a “lot of text messages, a lot of emails,” he said.
He says he loves “the insanity of it.”
Softball provides Springfield-area families a chance to spend time together, and a chance for girls to spend time with their friends.
Given the ambitious schedules some teams play, it helps if entire families are interested in the game, because they’ll be spending a lot of time at the ball diamond.
Felicia Burns spends many of her summer nights watching her 12-year-old daughter Annie Burns, who plays for Chaos 2000 from New Berlin.
Annie started playing in the league three years ago, though she took up softball at age 4 or 5.
“That’s what we do for fun,” said Felicia Burns, who is used to sunburns because of long days at tournaments. Her husband sometimes helps coach and even umpires, and the couple’s other two children both play sports.
Annie loves softball and seeing her friends. She looks forward to the games each week.
“I just like it,” she said, clad in a bright green jersey with matching socks and a pair of sunglasses.
Chatham’s Kris Lauher played softball at the University of South Carolina Aiken. She started coaching her daughter’s team when the girl was just 6.
Now, her daughter, Sydney Paulauskis, and the Heat Silver 12U (12 and under) team have played together for years. The girls, who come from Chatham, Pleasant Plains, Auburn and Rochester, often play in the league’s 14U category because they dominated their age-group competition.
Still, it’s not all about winning.
“These girls are friends,” said Lauher, who is on the Land of Lincoln organization’s board. She noted that some of the umpires were around when she played.
The Heat Silver 12U plays a double-header (two games) one night a week. The team also qualified for the Amateur Softball Association national tournament in Bloomington, Ind., at the end of July.
Sherman’s Steven Dennis and his Capital City Blitz team travel every weekend during the summer throughout the Midwest. The players went 9-0 during the Kansas City Area Memorial Day National Invitation Tournament. They also won the recent Capital City Shootout tournament in Springfield, hosted by the Land of Lincoln organization.
Since February, the team has played 61 games and has about 40 more to go. Softball is a year-round for these girls. They play throughout the spring and summer with the Blitz, and they play for their school teams and in a fall league. They practice once or twice per week with the Blitz team, depending on the time of year.
The league provides “the opportunity for girls to compete against their friends,” said Dennis, who is on the board. “We try to provide an opportunity for the girls to be able to play a competitive sport.”
Dennis’ daughter, Danielle Dennis says she loves league games because the players get the opportunity to play different positions and become better softball players. She pitches and plays first base, though her favorite part of the game is hitting.
Danielle also says she loves making new friends — even those on opposing teams.
Danielle and the other softball players look forward to weekend tournaments. They get to travel, spending time in new cities and states. They also play four to nine games during a weekend, getting the opportunity to improve, Danielle said. Between and after games, the girls eat dinner together and enjoy spending time with teammates.
Beginning at 5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, players start arriving for their 6:15 game times. They grab their big bags, which hold bats. They lace up their shoes and grab their gloves.
Erwin posts field assignments to a bulletin board for teams to check.
Within 15-30 minutes, the fields are packed with players, who start warming up.
As game time nears, the fields are abuzz. A boisterous collection of parents and players greets one another. The girls warm up, eagerly greeting one another.
Most of the teams have 13-14 players.
Teams rotate between being home and away. The visiting team runs the scoreboard using a remote control.
“Everybody knows where it’s at,” Erwin said.
By the time the home team takes the field, everything’s in place.
And before the first pitch is thrown, Erwin usually heads home for the night, ready to start again the next day.