Judging by the late-night exit polls, the home opener for the Pennsylvania Rebellion and National Pro Fastpitch women’s softball league Thursday night at Consol Energy Park was a huge success on most fronts.
A large crowd – the announced attendance was 2,943 – arrived early and many people stayed for a 40-minute postgame autograph session with the Rebellion and USSSA Pride players. There was as much interest in getting a signature from Pride pitcher and two-time Olympian Cat Osterman as there was for the Rebellion players, which shows the local fans know their softball history.
The damper on the night was the Pride scoring five runs over the first two innings and dealing the Rebellion a 6-2 defeat, dropping the home team’s record to 2-3.
However, not many people were complaining about the final score.
“I’d give it an ‘A,’” said Rebellion owner Stu Williams. “Everybody was happy and very enthusiastic. There were a lot of happy softball players in the stands. It’s their game, and now they’re able to see the cream of the crop in their sport.”
Those softball players came from all over southwestern Pennsylvania and proudly wore their high school hoodies, T-shirts and pullovers. They came from Canon-McMillan, Chartiers-Houston, Brownsville, Belle Vernon, Hopewell, Blackhawk, Ringgold, Moon, Charleroi, Frazier, South Fayette, Waynesburg, West Mifflin and few other schools I didn’t have time to note with a scribble in the notebook. One local travel softball team bought more than 500 tickets to the game.
The first thing you noticed about the crowd was its demographics as compared to the fans who attend Wild Things games. On this night, it was a crowd heavy on high school and middle school kids – a group that has been missing for years at the local Frontier League baseball team’s games.
“I think it’s really cool that professional softball is being played so close to us,” said 17-year-old Casey Craig, a member of the Chartiers-Houston High School team. “As soon as I heard there was going to be a team here, I bought a season ticket. It’s such an inspiration for girls my age who have watched these players on television for years.”
Craig will be getting a better look at the NPF teams in the coming months. A shoulder injury that required surgery will prevent her from playing summer softball, so she will be working as bat girl at Rebellion games.
There were many high school coaches in the crowd, and some were doing more than just watching Rebellion manager Rick Bertagnolli, who doubles as the head coach at California University.
“I’m here to get some pointers,” said Belle Vernon coach Tom Rodriguez. “I’m always trying to learn something. … Our kids have been talking about the Rebellion for months. I know some had planned to be here tonight but they changed our graduation from Wednesday to (Thursday) and they couldn’t be here.”
One thing the league needs is for the Rebellion franchise to succeed. There are only four teams in the NPF. Four teams isn’t a league, it’s a division. Expansion is a must for the NPF to survive and thrive. The league’s other teams are located in Chicago and Akron. The Pride is based in Orlando, Fla.
“I’m excited about having a team in Washington. Akron is just too far to drive to see a game,” said 12-year-old Kaci Alderson of Houston.
Alderson, whose mother, Tricia, is the head coach at Chartiers-Houston, said she was able to see the Rebellion practice several times.
“They were so fluent and smooth. It was shocking to see just how good these players are,” Kaci Alderson said. “It was effortless for them.”
For the most part, the game was well-played. There was a little of everything, from a 25-minute first inning to bunt singles to a home run over the portable outfield fence by the Pride’s Kristyn Sandberg.
“I had some people tell me the game is scary because the fielders are so close to the batter,” Williams said. “It’s an interesting combination of speed and power.”
It’s still too early to say if women’s pro softball will work in Washington. That won’t be determined for at least another year, when the novelty of the league wears off. But for one night, with perfect weather, it worked.
“It was awesome,” said Rebellion third baseman Jenn Salling, a four-year veteran of the NPF. “It was nice to see the stands packed in a baseball stadium. Sometimes when you play in a baseball stadium you get the feeling the place is bigger than it actually is, but not tonight.
“For a first-year franchise to get this kind of crowd and support, it’s exciting. The future of the sport is promising here.”
Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at email@example.com.