ST. PETERS • Sunrise Tuesday featured the final step in St. Louis taking its place as a major player in the hierarchy of softball elite.
To follow up the Premier League, and the ASA Junior/Senior all-star games, the "Gateway to the Next Level" softball camp -- a first-of-its-kind camp -- which was held at the Woodlands Sports Complex, once again put the regional softball spotlight squarely on the St. Louis area.
Some 210 campers from all over the Midwest were on hand to learn from a collection of the region’s elite collegiate softball coaches.
“This is awesome, and it’s a lot cheaper,” said camper Kaitlyn Boal, who will be a sophomore at Lafayette. “If you went to every one of these schools, you’d have to pay $500 for each camp. When they’re all here, it’s very easy, and they’re here to help you. It’s also nice to be seen by so many college coaches.”
The list of instructors at the camp, put on by Esprit coach Andy Heifner and several of the Premier League coaches included Melissa Tucci, University of Missouri assistant coach; Sue Frederick, Missouri State assistant coach; Jordan Stevens, Valparaiso head coach; Christy Cannoyer, St. Louis University head coach; Hallie Blackney, Southeast Missouri assistant coach; Erin Brown, Truman State head coach; Cathy Monroe, Truman State assistant coach; Katie O’Connell, University of Illinois assistant coach; Mike Perniciaro, University of Mississippi assistant coach; Don Canary, Tennessee-Martin head coach; Sarah Daws, Tennessee-Martin assistant coach; Elizabeth Economon, Pittsburgh State (Kan.) head coach; Brian Levin, UM-St. Louis head coach and Glen Knaebel, Lindenwood assistant coach.
Campers worked on proper techniques of every aspect of the game -- from pitching to catching, hitting to fielding and base running to sliding.
“This is a great opportunity to not only see and communicate to, but to also work with all the talent around the St. Louis area,” Tucci said. “I wish they would do this all over the state, to be honest. It is such a great opportunity.”
For Cannoyer, getting the chance to work with the future of her sport and imparting some of her knowledge to girls is ideal.
“It’s a great camp setting, and when you get the chance to work with some quality talent from this year, you’re blessed,” Cannoyer said. “This is always fun. Our sport is about repetition and to give the girls the chance to (repeat drills) fundamental skills. When you have that opportunity with (college) coaches, everybody is very fortunate.”
The camp ran all day Tuesday with skills drills being taught by the college coaches/instructors on five of the fields and at the complex’s batting cage.
After a lunch break, the campers were split into teams where one-hour scrimmages were coached by the college coaches/ camp instructors.
One tough thing for some campers might have been to show their skills in front of a bunch of college coaches.
“You’ve got to go out and just play like they’re not there,” said camper Kaylee Huecker, a sophomore-to-be at Holt. “It’s a little (intimidating), but you’ve just got to go through it. It’s great to be able to learn new things about the game and to be able to meet new people (in the other campers).”
For Heifner, the camp has been a labor of love.
It is a labor that has borne plenty of fruit. That was evident by the flurry of activity as campers and staff members scurried around the park.
“It’s been pretty special,” Heifner said. “Honestly, the numbers got are a lot bigger than we thought. It’s hard to turn them away. We travel all over the place to do this same thing, and we’re lucky enough to get a place in town and lucky enough to get these college coaches to come in to do it. That’s the thing: you get the coaches, and the kids will come.”
Getting ready for the event also has taken its toll on the Esprit coach and Premier League director, though.
“I really didn’t sleep at all last night,” Heifner said. “I woke up yesterday at about seven and haven’t been to bed yet. There’s a lot of work that couldn’t be done until the very end. We have 210 kids out here and (all the) college coaches. It’s good. It would be really special if somebody caught somebody’s eye. That’s the idea. Most coaches see a kid for an at-bat or a game. Here, they get six to eight hours right under their nose, and that’s the beauty of it.
“I just wanted to add a big thank you to everybody who has helped me,” Heifner added. “(People like) Kim Fowle, Ron Taylor and all that same kind of gang who jumped right in when I asked for help on this. They do it with the right spirit and ask nothing for it.”