Sports fans looking for high-quality competition to watch: your search is over.
There's elite college softball being played a few minutes down the road — and there will be some familiar faces for Sarasota sports fans.
The Bradenton-based Florida Gulf Coast League, a summer college baseball league that began play in 2019, has also become an option for fast-pitch softball players in 2020. While there are many summer baseball leagues across the country, the FGCL is the first such opportunity for softball players.
The chance to be the first is what appealed to league founder Ryan Moore, a Bradenton native.
"Last year, I was watching a junior college (summer league) 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. It's dumbfounding. When I had the idea, I realized we already had the resources from hosting baseball. There is no difference in fields or anything. 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 is also a "wild card" team in the mix — Tampa Mustangs TJ, the nationally ranked club team coached by Lakewood Ranch High coach TJ Goelz. The Mustangs will play a six-game schedule, keeping teams fresh on off days. The rest of the teams will play 25 games, with the season ending July 31.
It comes at an opportune time. College softball players, like other spring athletes, had their season 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 the league got 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.
There are local alumni playing in the softball league, like Bradenton Lynx shortstop Devyn Flaherty, a 2019 Riverview High grad who now plays for Florida State, and Manatee Squeeze outfielder Alexis Johns, a 2018 Sarasota grad who now plays for Florida International. There are also players from afar, like Manatee Squeeze second baseman Stormy Kotzelnick, who played high school softball in Carmel, Ind., and will play for Washington next season. Other out-of-state colleges represented include Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Georgia Tech and Northwestern.
The pandemic has also 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 instructions 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."
Games are played day and night Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Some games are played at Lakewood Ranch High while others are at Bradenton's Palma Sola Park. All games are free for fans to attend. For the league's full softball schedule, plus its baseball schedule, visit the FGCL website (flgulfcoastleague.com).