College softball-level program rises in East County despite the pandemic.
While many professional or college sports leagues are considering their return or the beginning of a new season, an amateur softball league is finishing its season right here in the Bradenton area in the coming weeks.
The Bradenton-based Florida Gulf Coast League, a competitive summer league intended for college softball players, began its inaugural run during the pandemic with social distancing and health guidelines in place.
The league plays its final regular season games July 16 at Lakewood Ranch High School as the Bradenton Slice faces Fastpitch U at 5 p.m. and the Bradenton Lynx plays Impact Softball at 7 p.m. On July 17 at Lakewood Ranch High, the Myakka City RiverMocs meet the Bradenton Slice at 5 p.m. and the Bradenton Lynx will play the Pioneers at 7 p.m.
The league's playoffs begin July 18 with the teams to be determined. Once decided, they will be posted to the FGCL website.
The games are free to attend.
Bradenton native Ryan Moore founded the league after he saw that college softball players didn't have any opportunities to play competitive league softball. College baseball-based summer programs have been available around the country for years, including the Florida Gulf Coast League's baseball program that started in 2019.
But nothing was available for the women.
"Last year, I was watching a junior college (summer league baseball) game, and there were softball players sitting in the stands watching," Moore said. "I just thought, 'You know, they should have a chance to play, too.'
"I love watching college softball. I'm a bit of a junkie about it. It's shocking that there was not a summer league for those players before now. When I had the idea, I realized we already had the resources from hosting baseball. We had everything we needed to do it, so why not do it?"
The FGCL's softball division consists of seven teams representing different parts of the area, like the Myakka City River Mocs and the Manatee Squeeze. Each team is individually owned and operated. There was also a "wild card" team in the mix — the Tampa Mustangs, the nationally-ranked club team coached by Lakewood Ranch High coach TJ Goelz. The Mustangs played a six-game exhibition schedule, keeping the regular league teams fresh on off days. The regular league are finishing off a 25-game schedule.
The league's inaugural season came at an opportune time. College softball players, like other spring athletes, had their seasons cut short because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moore said the pandemic made filling team rosters more of a challenge than he anticipated, but the players who decided to participate were excited to get back on the field.
They are also talented. While the FGCL's baseball league is mostly for developmental players — the ones with pro potential are likely to play in the Cape Cod League, Moore said — the softball league attracted players from top-tier schools.
While the rosters include players from all around the country, local players also are involved, such as Bradenton Slice shortstop Kinsey Goelz, a 2017 Lakewood Ranch grad now playing for Florida, and Devyn Flaherty, a 2019 Riverview High grad who played club softball for the Tampa Mustangs. Flaherty now plays for Florida State.
They will be competing against or playing with players such as Manatee Squeeze second baseman Stormy Kotzelnick, who played high school softball in Carmel, Ind., and will play for the University of Washington next season. Other out-of-state colleges represented include Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Georgia Tech and Northwestern.
"I was so excited to play," Kinsey Goelz said. "I have always wanted to play in a summer league like baseball has, and then this year with the pandemic stopping our season, even more so. I'm used to playing travel ball in the summer. Back then, I would have maybe a month off between seasons instead of the more than two months off college teams usually have. I don't like waiting around. I always want to be playing.
"The experience has been even better than I thought it would be. It's well organized. The girls love it. The competition is similar to what I'm used to facing, even though there are girls from different levels here. We were all rusty after the long layoff, so it created an even playing field. I'm so thankful for the opportunity to play, especially after not seeing live pitching for four months. I think playing now will be an advantage for people here come next season. I have already told people I want to come back next year, too."
The pandemic has forced the FGCL to make tweaks to its rules. Players are not allowed to share water bottles and multiple sanitizing stations are located at each field. Other than that, Moore said, the league is following the guidelines given by Manatee County.
Moore said summer league softball is different than baseball because while many baseball players are getting ready for the pro level, only a handful of softball players will make a National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) roster. The players competing in the FGCL, then, will be doing it for the love of the game more than anything else. Still, Moore said he hopes the league can become the softball equivalent of the Cape Cod League: a destination event for fans and players alike.
"Next year, we hope to double the amount of teams," Moore said. "The reaction so far has been even better than I expected. Teams are psyched. I know some groups of players have already had discussions about coming back next year to play together again."