Ridaught: Softball a home run this summer 

Backwards K college camp photo
Backwards K college camp photo at Champions Park in Newberry. (Courtesy of Ali Higgs)

It has been a busy summer at Champions Park in Newberry. 

This weekend they are hosting their sixth and final major softball event over the last eight weeks. All of the events this summer were for 14U, 16U and 18U softball. 

It began with the Premier Girls Fastpitch (PGF) Summer States (June 4-5), which had 103 teams from five states and over 20 college coaches. 

Today through Sunday, Champions Park presents the Backwards K Showcase, featuring 88 teams from five states. They are expecting over 60 college coaches to attend. 

“Florida PGF has been bringing tournaments to Newberry for the last five years,” said Florida PGF Director Bill Hoopes. “This year specifically we have run multiple events bringing tons of people to the local community. We have played well over 700 games from three events this summer at Champions Park and produced over 5,000 hotel room nights this summer.” 

The events have pumped a lot of money into the local economy. 

“We haven’t finalized the hotel impacts yet, but these events have been a huge economic impact to Alachua County over the last two months as a majority of the teams are from out of county and out of state with very few local teams,” said Will Hooper, who is in his second year as director of operations for Champions Park. 

Show Me The Money softball tournament - batter
Courtesy of Bill Hoopes

Last weekend was the USSSA ProSwings Power 50 Invitational, which included 62 teams from 13 states with over 50 college coaches from 36 colleges (some schools had two coaches on site). 

After previously being held in Cookeville, Tennessee, the ProSwings Power 50 Invitational partnered with Central FL USSSA Softball and Tournament Director Tonya Waters. They moved the event this year to Champions Park. 

“ProSwings Power 50 Invitational Tournament and college exposure camp were both a huge success,” said ProSwings owner and former University of Central Florida player Stephanie Best. “We were extremely happy with everyone involved, the professionalism of the park and staff, our travel teams and our college coaches. It was a home run for everyone.” 

In addition to the economic impact, it’s an opportunity for rising softball stars to showcase their abilities in front of college coaches who are on site to recruit. 

“We’ve been able to produce over 35 college scholarships to athletes over the last two years by holding our tournaments in the Newberry area,” Hoopes said. 

Other softball events this summer have included the PGF Show me the Money (June 9-12), which had 106 teams from 27 states and over 136 college coaches attending, and the PGF Battle on The Diamond Showcase (July 8-10), which featured 60 teams from 11 states over 30 college coaches. 

Hoopes said the Florida PGF “continues to drive production, increase scholarship funds and our partnerships with the local community. 

“Through working with local partners and local facilities we have been able to increase not only the amount of people in the county and the amount of hotel rooms, but the number of consumers that are working in the community and bringing their hard-earned dollars to Alachua County,” he said. “This year we have had over 200 college coaches (universities, junior colleges, and NAIA schools) as well as Division I, Division II, and Division III NCAA schools.” 

Call it a win-win for all parties involved. 

“It’s been a great experience and we look forward to a continued relationship with RADDsports, Champions Park, Alachua County and the Gainesville Sports Commission,” Hoopes said. 

Many local athletes have participated in the events this summer at Champions Park. 

Santa Fe Inferno 18U Nowling - winners of ProSwings 18U division
Courtesy of Stephanie Best Santa Fe Inferno 18U Nowling – winners of ProSwings 18U division.

A few of the girls include Parris Wiggs of Gainesville High (Mercer University signee), Raegan Geiger of Williston, who just committed to the College of Central Florida in Ocala last weekend, Nevaeh Hayes of Williston (uncommitted), and J’lyn Guyden of Santa Fe (uncommitted). 

All four players are part of Santa Fe Inferno Nowling whose team won the 18U Division ProSwings Championship last weekend. 

Another local team, Santa Fe Inferno White, finished second. 

Champions Park looks to finish off a strong summer this weekend with another Backwards K Showcase event. Last month, the Backwards K Showcase (June 24-26) featured 86 teams from four states and over 57 college coaches attended. 

“We are excited to bring Backwards K back to Newberry,” said director and owner Ali Higgs, who was Jacksonville University’s head softball coach from 2012-14. “We have teams flying in from as far as Chicago this weekend, so we’re excited to host them here in the Newberry/Gainesville area.” 

College coaches at softball tournament
Photo by Bill Hoopes College coaches at one of the summer softball tournaments held at Champions Park in Newberry.

Today’s action begins with college camp from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., which includes four hours of instruction (usually 60-70 kids) hosted by actual college coaches (20-30 coaches), according to Hooper. 

“They run through drills, fielding, hitting, instruction and sometimes live scrimmages,” said Hooper, who is also the head softball coach at Buchholz High School in Gainesville. “Basically, it’s an extended practice but also a great chance to get some one-on-one time with a college coach and maybe get recognized.” 

The games start this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. They continue on Saturday and Sunday at 9 a.m. 

“This format is a little different,” Hooper explained. “Each team plays five games over the weekend in front of college coaches. There is no bracket play for first, second, etc. It’s strictly a showcase event.” 

The hard work that goes into planning these events has paved the way for future opportunities. They have already started locking in next year’s events. 

“We are extremely grateful to RADDSports and the Champions Park staff, along with the Gainesville Sports Commission, for their continued support and efforts in helping us bring out events to Newberry,” Higgs said. “The 2023 dates are already set and we are looking forward to many more events with them in the future.” 

Show Me The Money softball tournament - pitcher
Courtesy of Bill Hoopes
Show Me The Money softball tourney - runner on first
Courtesy of Bill Hoopes
Show Me The Money softball tourney - pitcher
Courtesy of Bill Hoopes
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