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Globe West Around the Diamond

Summer softball offers showcase for stars

The Plainville-based R.I. Thunder Gold - featuring area stars including (clockwise from left) Meghan Rico, Shannon Smith, Olivia Godin, and Emily Felbaum - is among New England’s top summer travel squads. The Plainville-based R.I. Thunder Gold - featuring area stars including (clockwise from left) Meghan Rico, Shannon Smith, Olivia Godin, and Emily Felbaum - is among New England’s top summer travel squads. (Photos By Robert E. Klein for The Boston Globe)
By Phil Perry
July 17, 2011

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PLAINVILLE - Shannon Smith remembers becoming a bit “freaked out’’ pitching at her first showcase tournament. As she prepared to go into her windup, she spotted a coach from perennial college power UCLA. The Milford teen was so nervous that she needed to be calmed down by her teammates.

A rising freshman at the time, Smith knew at that moment that she and her teammates on the Rhode Island Thunder Gold summer squad were under the scrutiny of some of the best college programs in the country.

“It was nerve-wracking,’’ said Smith, who has pitched Milford High to the Division 1 state final and state semifinals as a freshman and sophomore.

“But, now, once I’m out there I don’t even know which coaches are watching. I’m just focused on the game.’’

These showcases - invitational tournaments in which scores of college coaches assemble to scout future recruits - have become more routine for Smith’s teammates, too.

As the Thunder Gold has turned into one of the elite 18-and-under summer travel teams in New England, Division 1 college coaches have become mainstays behind backstops at their games. The Thunder Gold travel to the most competitive tournaments, looking to gain maximum exposure and, players hope, college scholarships.

Lately, Thunder Gold, which calls the Plainville Athletic League fields home, has had overwhelming success in its mission.

Seven of the 14 players on its roster are verbally committed to Division 1 schools, including King Philip Regional rising seniors Meg Rico (George Washington) and Olivia Godin (University of Massachusetts Amherst), Grafton’s Emily Felbaum (Boston University) and Milford’s Nicole Silva (Bucknell), who recently graduated from Mount St. Charles Academy in Rhode Island.

The seven uncommitted players are either entering their sophomore or junior years of high school, and are still weighing their options.

Smith has received interest from schools like Kentucky, Northwestern and Ohio State, among many others. Nicole Lundstrom, who will be a junior at Dighton-Rehoboth Regional, recently made an unofficial visit to Tennessee.

“One hundred percent of our kids will go play college ball and receive athletic scholarships,’’ said manager Dave Lotti, whose team was 19-8 this summer before traveling to the Demarini Invitational in Glen Ellen, Ill., this weekend .

“Our kids can play with anyone in the country, without a doubt.’’

The level of play is significantly more competitive than what players see during their high school seasons. Polar Crush Gold, a Worcester-based travel team that features Franklin’s Ellen Czuba and Natick’s Lexi Gifford, has a similarly talented roster, and may face off against host Thunder Gold at the New England’s Finest showcase next month.

Opposing hitters on teams such as the Polar Crush are so skilled that Rico, who threw two perfect games for King Phillip this spring, said anything close to perfection this summer would be “impossible.’’

Acton-Boxborough Regional player Sarah Ropiak, a member of the Thunder program’s Elite team, says she notices the difference in intensity, even in practice.

“During the high school playoffs, you get close to this level,’’ she said. “But here, during the summer, it’s like that every day.’’

Their softball education and exposure comes at a price, however. Summer downtime is sparse for Thunder players. The team is scheduled to play in seven weekend tournaments this summer, which equates to about 50 games. Last summer, the team spent more than 30 nights in hotels, players estimated. And the price, in dollars, is steep too: $2,600 for a first-year player (which includes a uniform, but excludes travel costs).

The Thunder Gold plays a fall season as well. Tryouts begin on Aug. 9, two days after the final day of the summer season. Those who make it will play about 40 additional tournament games.

Many players who see the schedule, or endure one of Lotti’s grueling four-hour practices, leave before even being cut. And some who have made the team eventually decide they don’t want to commit the necessary time.

“It’s a way of life,’’ Godin said. “You get used to it. If you don’t like it, then it’s not for you and you leave the team. The people who stay, we just love it.’’

The dedication can be just as intensive for parents, who travel to tournaments as far away as Boulder, Colo., or drive great distances just so their daughters can practice. Brittany McNulla resides in Litchfield, N.H., but her father accompanied her to a workout last week in Plainville.

“It’s a commitment,’’ said Mark McNulla. “But if these girls do what the coaches tell them, they’ll all get Division 1 scholarships. They know what they’re doing.’’

The players were in agreement that even with the time devoted, the travel and the occasional nervousness, it’s all worth it.

“No regrets,’’ Rico said. “I’m going to college for free to an awesome school that I love. A lot of people have gotten great opportunities because of this. I would do it all again any day.’’

Post 77 peaks in home stretch Ashland’s American Legion Post 77 team needed to make a move if it hoped to stay in the top four of Zone 5, and qualify for the playoffs. Coach Dan Sullivan’s team responded by winning six straight games, and nine out of 10, through Wednesday.

Ashland, which was in third place and in position to make the postseason with three games left on its schedule, can thank its pitching. In eight of 10 games, Post 77 received complete games; the righthanded trio of Hopkinton’s Nick Cornu, Bellingham’s Mitch Corbitt and Holliston’s Cato Lacroix had a combined earned-run average of 1.82 this season.

“They’ve been outstanding,’’ said Sullivan. “None of them go out there to just try to get us three or four’’ innings, he said. “Everyone’s out there with the mentality of finishing what they start.’’

During Post 77’s run, Hopkinton’s Alex Hulme led the offensive attack from the leadoff spot, going 20 for 26 during one scorching stretch.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before,’’ Sullivan said of Hulme’s tear. “It’s almost funny now when he gets out because nobody expects it.’’

Phil Perry can be reached at paperry27@gmail.com.