Poised to strike: Summit County team will play in Triple Crown
When Park City High School assistant coach Alissa Smith jawed at a South Summit High School baserunner in a tournament last spring, the umpiring crew came over to warn her about inappropriate sportsmanship. Before Smith could explain herself, the Wildcat shot a snarky retort in her direction, and the umpires stood scratching their heads.
Little did they know that this wasn’t the disrespectful trash talk of high school rivals, but tongue-in-cheek banter between county comrades.
"They were very confused," said Smith, who is also an assistant coach for the Summit County Silver Strikers summer softball team. "It’s really fun to play against each other. We enjoy that friendly competition."
The Silver Strikers are preparing to send a team to the Triple Crown Fastpitch World Series for the third consecutive year, giving the county a home team to root for among 300 from around the Western United States. The conglomerate of players from Coalville, Kamas, Oakley and Park City sent 16-and-under teams the last two seasons, but opted instead to enter a 14-and-under squad in 2010 because there was a larger pool of interested players.
"It’s a great event that comes into our backyard," said Strikers head coach Scott Chester, who founded the Silver Strikers organization partly to groom talent for the program he helms at PCHS. "I feel strongly that these girls can compete and win a couple games, if not more, in the tournament. For me, it’s a highlight just to see Summit County girls in the Triple Crown. These girls are starting to get it after seeing the 16s the past couple years."
Wearing navy blue to differentiate from the colors at SSHS, PCHS and North Summit High School, the Summit County melting pot features four players from Park City (Casey Picillo, Cass Chester, Abbie Towery and Paige Dabell), seven from the South Summit School District (Katelyn Rogers, Natalie Nichols, Hailey Hardman, Maddy Harry, Dom Harry, Jade Snyder and McKaye Woolstenhulme), and two from North Summit (Kylee Jo Stokes and McKaylie Rex).
The club has broken down barriers between the athletes since its inception three years ago, when girls from each high school banded together at the first practice for a 16-and-under team.
"You could tell by their cleats which team they played for," Smith said. " the end of the summer, it was totally mixed. They were having slumber parties and hanging out on the weekends."
Softball has become more popular throughout the area, but the local weather and competing interests make it difficult to form a summer team as polished as the nation’s elite. Many local girls go on spring break or summer vacation – considered taboo for many of the players attending Triple Crown.
"It’s difficult, because for high school girls, you’re practicing in a gym four months for preseason," said Cass Chester, a Silver Strikers pitcher who will be a sophomore at PCHS next year. "Then, once you finally get outside, getting girls to come out and play is also difficult because they have other commitments a lot of the time."
Cass’s father Scott said he’s not trying to change Summit County, but he is trying to make the most of it. And he has seen results. Eighteen girls tried out for the 14-and-under team, and those who didn’t make it are still working at the game.
"These girls we’ll see (at Triple Crown), their whole life is softball," Chester said. "I’m not all about that. I’m not necessarily interested in girls playing nine months out of the year. I just want them to play dedicated for about six months of the year."
Many of the teams Park City faces already have played upward of 50 games on their way to more than 100 this summer. The Silver Strikers played together for the first time this week in Salt Lake City, and their shortened high school season ended months ago.
"This is basically the second-biggest tournament in the country on our doorstep," Smith said. "When you look at the numbers and you look at what’s on paper, we’re a little outmatched."
Still, they have had some success in recent years, and will again get to measure themselves against the West’s best starting on Tuesday, July 20, at noon in Coalville, when they play the California Waves. The team also plays at 1:45 p.m. on Tuesday in Coalville, and 8 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday at Quinn’s Junction. If they reach the next round in Oakley, each of 13 players will have had a true home game.
That is, unless the Strikers add another pitcher from outside the county, which Chester said is possible. Last year, North Summit High School star McKenzie Woolstenhulme was injured shortly before the tournament, and the team turned to Wasatch pitcher Katrina Baird. Baird led the Strikers to three wins and a positive memory of the Triple Crown event.
"You want to be competitive," Chester said. "It just makes it a better experience for the kids."
The status of Cass Chester is in doubt after she inflamed a tendon in her left elbow throwing overhand in training. Chester just started pitching a year ago and has worked very hard to improve, demanding a lot of herself and making a good example for her teammates, Smith said.
"A lot of the girls are picking up on that and realizing that, with a little hard work, you can be a good ballplayer," Smith said. "They’re just barely started to realize how fun it is to play at this level and what they’re capable of."
Chester said she is undergoing physical therapy and hoping to return by Thursday. In her absence, the team’s clear ace is Picillo, who moved to Park City last year from New Jersey and immediately established herself as a reliable option.
"Casey throws very consistently and is really just a workhorse," Smith said. "It’s fun to watch Casey pitch because she gets on the mound and it’s just one pitch after another. Cassidy is a little more thoughtful about it. She has very high expectations for herself."
Nichols is the team’s third pitcher, having just picked up the trade recently and already showing great progress.
"Natalie’s been working really hard, and just needs the experience," Smith said. "She’ll be fantastic. I’m really excited to see her develop."
Woolstenhulme led off and played second base in the team’s first game together at the Salt Lake Firecracker tournament on Thursday morning. Dom Harry played third base and hit second, Picillo pitched and hit third, and Hardman played left field and hit cleanup. Rogers played catcher, Nichols manned shortstop, Maddy Harry was in center, Snyder was at first and Stokes was in right. Towery and Dabell rounded out the order for the tournament, which allows all players to hit.
"We’re trying to get some experience," Smith said. "Last year, we took a lot of raw talent that had never played at this level of softball. It was kind of a wake-up call for a lot of them. A lot of kids last year were in shock, and it kind of motivated them to get better. The team we have this year would destroy the team we started with last year."
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Gov. Cox announced that the state’s mask mandate in schools would end for the last week of classes. Park City School District officials strongly recommended that students continue to wear masks. South Summit officials anticipated they would not require masks for the final week.