Twelve hands come together. "One, two, three, Fever!" yell the girls of the Diamond Fever U18 softball team.
The starting nine then bolt out of the dugout and onto Field 1 at the Botetourt Sports Complex for their first game of the ASA Virginia State Championship tournament. Dressed in their red and blue uniforms, the Fever girls try to ignore the Troutville heat which isn't easy since it's only noon and it already feels as hot as a kiln. They're also trying not to think of Spartanburg, SC, where, if they do well this weekend, they will find themselves in the ASA Nationals. No, players like Dom and Bri and C.C. are concentrating on their Sarasota Heat opponents because if their coach Tim Bray has taught them anything -- and he's taught them a lot -- it's always focus on this game, this play, this pitch. When you're on the field, he says, nothing else matters.
In the grandstands, LaDonna Varner, Diamond Fever secretary and mother of Fever player Kendall, explains that the story this weekend is simple. There are 66 traveling teams from across the state competing in 10U, 12U, 14U and 18U (including the Diamond Fever 18U and 14U). Today's two games are to determine seeding. Then, over the course of the weekend, it's double elimination with the top two teams going to Spartanburg. "We're a young team," explains Varner, citing that they only have two actual 18 year-olds. "But we have fight."
The Diamond Fever team story, however, is a bit more complicated.
Formed in 1998, the Fever has been the premiere girls' travelling softball team of Pittsylvania County, the largest in the state. Each May, the summer season begins. That means 3-4 hours daily practices at their home "Triple C" field in Ringgold, Virginia. Tournament and showcase road trips nearly every weekend. But for these small town girls, Fever is much more than hundred-degree days, sweat soaked uniforms and sore muscles. It's about friendship, family and community. Building character. Creating a future. "I can't even describe how it means to play for Diamond Fever," says Kendall.
Yet in 2012, the team was thrown a curve. Circumstances arose that they never envisioned.
And as they scrap their way to a 4-2 victory over the Heat, it's hard to imagine that the Diamond Fever's story nearly came to an end. â€¨A day prior to their Heat match-up, the Diamond Fever 18U girls practiced back in Ringgold. Unlike the Botetourt Sports Complex, the Triple C fields are not pristine. There are no dugouts with water-fountains and bathrooms, no three-story tower with offices and concession stand. Tucked between tobacco fields off of country road 729, Triple C consists of one main and two smaller fields and is named for the Collie family, the farmers on whose land the fields sit. The outfields are patchy and uneven. The infields peppered with rocks. The main field's eight tall light towers haven't worked since the 80's. But for the past fifteen years the Collies have been kind enough to let Diamond Fever use the fields and to the players it's home.
Just three years earlier, however, the thirty-five some odd Diamond Fever players and their parents found themselves facing homelessness. "Jimmie Collie came to me and said they're going to have to sell the land," recalls John Shumaker, a local dairy farmer and President of Diamond Fever.
Now the Collies didn't leave Diamond Fever in the lurch. They gave the club a three-year lease -- a mere $400 a month -- with the option to buy. They offered financing for the deal. Yet $90,000 for the ten acres might as well have been $90 million. "Most of us are farmers and teachers," explains LaDonna. "We're not rich by any means." To make matters worse the team had built a training facility on the Collie's property, a large aluminum shed that housed batting cages, pitching mounds and a carpet of rather expensive artificial turf that once belonged to the University of Georgia football team. "So if we lost the land we'd lose everything on it," says Varner.
Yet this wasn't about simply about saving their investment; eventually they could have built another facility. And it was beyond keeping the girls playing softball; most all of them could have found some 'county ball' team to join. No. Losing Diamond Fever wouldn't be disbanding a team; it would be breaking apart a family.
Proof? Tag along with team for a weekend.
Eight of the thirteen 18U girls go to different schools but to listen to their endless banter you'd think they all lived in the same house. Chirping about road trips, being silly at Fuddruckers, 'putt-putt' golf turning into a field hockey game, cramming into a teammate's hotel room for a rocking karaoke session. Volunteering together at Danville charity God's Pit Crew, delivering care packages to nursing homes and raising money for a former Fever player who recently got badly burned at a bonfire. There's the story of Abby Watts, who, when she got an invitation from Diamond Fever, said she'd only play if her best friend and softball diehard Brooke Craddock could as well. And what better example than last season's Dan River versus Gretna middle school game? Kendall Meadows was pitching to Katie Thomas when Thomas ripped a line drive that knocked Meadows to the dirt. Instead of running to first base, Thomas bolted to the mound.
"What are you doing?" yelled Thomas's coach.
"She's my teammate," answered Katie.
"No she's not!"
"Yes!" said Katie as she gently took her friend's mask off. "She's my Fever teammate!"
But that's not all. Saving Triple C field - and ostensibly the entire Diamond Fever organization - was also about education. A fact made clear from watching the team practice. On this Thursday afternoon they carried out 'freeze drills,' an exercise to hone their defensive playmaking. Assistant coach Warren Mills smacked a grounder to the left side of the infield. The girls ran, shifted and all froze as shortstop Bri scooped up the ball. Then came head coach Tim Bray's questions, as fast as line drives. Who's moving where? Who should be backing up whom? The white-haired Bray, who's been molding young players since Fever's inception,
wants his girls to be six-tool players. "The most important part of this game is knowledge," he says, pointing to his temple. From the moment they step on the Triple C fields as nine and ten year-olds, Fever girls are learning. One day the lesson is discipline: running out every grounder, chasing down every fly ball. The next it's work ethic; instead of summer-break swimming at Smith Lake they're in the batting cage until their hands are raw. Every day it's questions from the practical (What's the width of the batter's box?) to the hypothetical (With runners on first and second, your opponents attempt a double steal -- and the batter lays down a bunt towards third. What's the best play?) "I'm not only coaching these girls to win at softball," explains Bray. "We're trying to prepare them for the future. College coaches know our girls work hard. They're well trained. They're smart."
College. That's the future Bray is talking about. A way upward. A way out. "From the age of 13 most of the girls here are dreaming to play at the next level," says 20 year-old and former pitcher/second baseman Nichole Mills. "It 's an opportunity we wouldn't have had without Fever." She speaks from experience, having earned a softball scholarship to Florida's Brevard College. In fact, over sixty Fever alumni played on the college level (eight presently) at local schools like Averett University and Elon College to national powerhouse Virginia Tech. Many of them earned scholarships that made the difference between that dream and reality. "I'm getting a full ride," beams Dominique Mulero who's heading to Boston University in the fall.
The players and parents held bake sales, car washes, and went door-to-door. They made vats of the southern staple Brunswick stew and sold it by the gallon. Every day, they stood outside Danville's Dick's Sporting Goods store petitioning people for whatever they could afford. Or couldn't. "We had a former Fever player give us $50," says LaDonna. "And I promise you she didn't have that $50 to give." With ten days remaining they were still $25,000 short. Then LaDonna was told by a friend to open her e-mail.
A member of the Diamond Fever 'family' had spread word of the team's plight. His company's ownership, based out of Chicago, responded. LaDonna's e-mail contained a picture of a check from that company. A check for twenty thousand dollars. "Faith is strong down in these parts," says Shumaker. "We viewed that money as a miracle." LaDonna didn't know what to think. She just went into her office and wept.
Ten o'clock Sunday morning at Botetourt Sports Complex. Another scorcher. While the Diamond Fever 14U girls were ousted from the ASA tournament on Saturday, the U18 squad swept both of their games and play today in the winner's bracket. In the first game, with the temperature creeping into the low 90's, they take on the Richmond Diamonds. A big time club from the big city. Needing a flawless performance, the Fever falter. Poor fielding, a dearth of hitting and the game is stopped in the 4th inning courtesy of the 'mercy rule.' The final: 14-0.
While the players scamper off to refuel and regroup, LaDonna, who's been indefatigably cheering all weekend, talks of the team's 'new' life. Since purchase the Triple C land, they've added a new fence. There are plans for dugouts, replacing the rickety bleachers and perhaps even a picnic shelter so the field could be used for events other than softball. Their long term plans? To host an annual tournament or two. They'd be able to cut down on their travel expenses, bring some revenue in for the county, and, perhaps most importantly, for once they'd all be able to sleep in their own beds before their biggest games.
Two p.m. Once again, the Fever face off against the Sarasota Heat, this time in a do-or-die situation. In the dugout, twelve hands come together. After The Lord's Prayer and a 1-2-3 cheer, the girls race onto the field. Having beaten the Heat on Friday, they are loose and confident, starting to whisper of Spartanburg, SC. But the game is a fiasco. All Sarasota. In the 4th inning, trailing 18-1, the umpire calls it.
Quietly, the Fever players gather their equipment, pick up their empty Gatorade bottles and sunflower seeds wrappers, and head for the parking lot. Coach Bray, perched on the back of his jeep, addresses the long faces. "We're blessed you know," he says his tone not that of angry coach but caring uncle. "Able to be out there in the beautiful sunshine playing the game we love. So I want you to remember to have fun. That's what they call it. A softball...game. Diamond Fever is a special group. We've got more in the tank. We'll get there."
While deeply disappointed, the Fever girls don't sulk. They don't shed any tears. Why should they? There's another tournament next week and as they find their parents and drive back to their homes, they're secure in the knowledge that they have a field to practice on for years to come.