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updated: 5/26/2011 8:22 PM

The end of one season is the start of another

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  • Naperville Central freshman Kristina Vizza watches her team during the final inning in their 2-0 loss to Edwardsville at their Class 4A semi-final game on Friday evening at the Eastside Centre fields in East Peoria.

      Naperville Central freshman Kristina Vizza watches her team during the final inning in their 2-0 loss to Edwardsville at their Class 4A semi-final game on Friday evening at the Eastside Centre fields in East Peoria.
    Kevin Sherman | Staff Photographer


Mary Connolly could win a state championship for West Chicago in two weeks and it wouldn't be her No. 1 softball moment.

Not when you already have won a national title. Connolly did last summer, pitching the championship game at U-18 ASA Nationals in California with the Stone City Sharks.

"It tops everything," said Connolly, a senior at West Chicago. "The most incredible thing I'll ever experience in all my years playing softball."

School is out for seniors like Connolly. Their next high school softball game could be their last.

Ask many parents and kids, though, and they will tell you that's when the real season begins.

Travel season.

Families will zig-zag the country competing in close to 100 games over the summer with the Sharks, Diamonds, Bandits or whatever program they are affiliated with at the moment.

Summer vacation? Not without a bat and glove.

Connolly, whose next stop school-wise is DePaul, has played travel ball as long as she can remember. Her Sharks teammates from last year like Neuqua Valley graduate Jenna Marsalli and Coal City's Kirsten Verdun are already in college and her coach retired, so Connolly will be playing this summer with the Bulls/Sox Academy's travel team.

It isn't uncommon at all for kids to switch travel teams affiliations from year to year, what one high school coach compared to "free agency with no rules."

"I've been trying to figure that out forever," Connolly said, when asked how high school and travel ball compares. "Summer is more relaxed. Not as much pressure and not as compressed time-wise. You don't have to go to school all day and don't have to budget your time as much."

Rare is the high school softball player, especially the good one, that does not play travel over the summer. It isn't uncommon in the spring to see a girl wearing a summer team helmet up to bat with her high school jersey like you'd see a player do in an MLB All-Star Game.

Andy Nussbaum, now in his 28th year in the Naperville Central, has seen what he calls "a fascinating evolution" in the game of softball he believes is correlated to the exponential growth of summer ball.

Sheila Lissman, who played for Nussbaum in the early 1990s and later was an All-America at College of DuPage, didn't even pitch until her sophomore year of high school.

"That's unheard of now," Nussbaum said. "We have kids coming into our school now that have been pitching for four, five years."

Naperville Central's winning percentage has experienced a dramatic improvement over the last decade, from .374 (123-206) in the 1990s to .632 (227-132) since 2000.

It was in 1995 that the Naperville Diamonds travel program was established. It now advertises itself as the state's largest youth fastpitch softball organization for kids ages 7-18.

Current Redhawks Kelsey Gonzalez and Kristina Vizza won national titles with the Diamonds pre-high school.

Coincidence that the Redhawks are better these days? Not likely.

"I remember a time that when you didn't play in Downers Grove or St. Charles, you didn't play summer softball," Nussbaum said. "The way it is now, it's even different than five years ago."

"I don't think I'd be even remotely close to where I am now if I hadn't played (summer travel)," Connolly said. "My summer team last summer, we had 13 girls as good as me if not better. Those people push you."

Nussbaum can recall years when his team lost a season-ending playoff game and his girls come back and play in a travel game later that night.

Another all-too-common paradigm is the fraternization of summer teammates, and their parents, at high school games. Connolly will compete against Gonzalez from Naperville Central and Kelsey Ullrich of Wheaton North this spring.

This summer they're teammates.

The friendly bond shows during pregame and between games of doubleheaders, when players and families from opposing teams come together.

"Not only do they all play summer, but they all know each other," Nussbaum said. "It's a little like (Michael) Jordan and (Charles) Barkley used to be. Friends off the court, tooth-and-nail on the court."

Here's one obvious question from the sidelines: Is it all too much? Is playing more than 100 games from spring to summer too demanding physically on teenage girls?

Count Connolly as one who says no way.

"I played, like, 80 games last summer, and I got used to it," she said. "When it's not fun anymore, you shouldn't play."