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Globe South Around the Diamond

Showcasing more than girls’ softball talent

‘You want the kids to excel’ in school

Devan Rabidou, No. 5, leads the pack on two laps before practice this past week in Raynham for the 18U Mass Drifters program. Other runners are Katie Romano, No. 6; Marlee Haigh, No. 1; and Jillian Shepherd (right), No. 20. Devan Rabidou, No. 5, leads the pack on two laps before practice this past week in Raynham for the 18U Mass Drifters program. Other runners are Katie Romano, No. 6; Marlee Haigh, No. 1; and Jillian Shepherd (right), No. 20. (George Rizer/Globe Staff)
By Colleen Casey
July 24, 2011

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Since she first started playing at the 14-and-under level, Marlee Haigh has dreamed of suiting up for a college softball program. The Kingston teen has worked her way up, age level to age level, through hundreds of long games, and sweltering practices, to her current stop as a member of the 18U Mass Drifters program, based in Taunton.

“Playing showcase challenges yourself and forces you to figure out what you really want,’’ said Haigh. “You have to give 110 percent to get to be where you want to be.’’

The idea of playing college softball, for either a Division 1 or 2 program, was a long shot for a player like Haigh and others in the past. However, the growth and popularity of the game over the past decade in the Northeast created a demand for “showcase’’ tournaments, games played under the watchful eyes of college coaches seeking players.

“Playing with the Drifters helped me get into American International College, a Division 2 school that I wanted for academics and softball,” said Haigh, who will be majoring in occupational therapy.

In her mind, the hard work and dedication to the sport paid off.

“The goal of the program is to teach kids to grow into high school players and take their game to the collegiate level, but have the kids do their homework at the same time,” said Carol Savino, who founded the Drifters program 26 years ago and coaches the under-18 team.

Savino stresses the importance of teaching her players how to present themselves professionally, how to talk to a college coach, and ask the questions they need to learn to ask in addition to development of softball skills.

“It’s all about their education,’’ added Savino, who is also the varsity coach at Norwood High.

“The real future is, they’re not going to play softball forever. You want the kids to excel academically, and softball is the benefit,” Savino said while directing a practice session earlier this week at Raynham Middle Schoool.

Second baseman Katie Romano, a member of the Drifters program since the sixth grade, said that she plays for the Drifters because Savino “runs a good team.’’“I know I want to go down South somewhere and [the Drifters] travel down there,’’ said Romano, who is entering her senior year at Thayer Academy in Braintree. “Carol knows a lot of the coaches and she has good pull. We all work well together, but the coaches let us figure out our own way.’’

She continues the rigorous game and practice schedules to “gain team learning experiences.”

The Drifters Elite Showcase squad, which has played in two tournaments in-state this summer, won four games last Sunday to capture the title at the Delaware Invitational Showcase last weekend. This weekend, there is another showcase in Swansea, and next week, they are off to Orlando for a national tournament.

“There’s tremendous opportunities for girls in the sport of softball now,” said Bob Rossi, the assistant coach and player manager of the Rhode Island Thunder Gold 18U squad, a national showcase team based in Plainville.

Thunder second baseman Patty Borges, a senior at Coyle & Cassidy, has already made a verbal commitment to her No. 1 choice, Stony Brook.

“You can’t make a career out of softball, but playing with the Thunder really helped me get into my number one choice,” said Borges.

Borges said the Thunder coaches are committed to getting all of the girls into their top schools and “they’ll do whatever it takes.”

“To put in this amount of time and effort, this is definitely what you need to do to play at the next level. The drive is necessary. You really have to be committed,” said Borges.

The commitment needed to play for a showcase team is very demanding.

“A lot of times I have to tell my friends I can’t do something because of softball,’’ she said. “I’m proud to say it though.”

The Thunder’s summer schedule includes national showcase tournaments played in front of Division I and Ivy League schools. In the two months, the team has traveled to Pennsylvania twice, Boulder, Colo., and Chicago.

In addition to playing double-header scrimmages, the Thunder practice at least twice a week for four hours, no easy task the last two weeks in the searing heat.

“You really have to be committed and love the game” to play the schedule,’’ said Rossi.

More and more teams in the Northeast have started to commit to the showcase season. The Drifters program now fields 10 teams from 10U to 23-and-under.

Five years ago, Rob Spofford formed the Braintree-based Baystate Thunder program, which fields an 18U and a 23U team and will introduce a 16U feeder squad next year. His players, who pay $500 to play (not including travel), aspire to play at the Division 2 or 3 level.

He said the goal of the Thunder old is “the proper development of skill set to help girls compete for positions and play in college.”

Savino said her organization prides itself on loyalty. “All the kids we showcase are kids from our program, unless we need a position to fill,’’ she said. “I put out every kid on the diamond to showcase from our program. We promote from within and build a showcase team.’’

“I never thought of switching teams because of how the Drifters developed me as a player and a person,’’ said Haigh. “I think traveling far and playing locally is great. We need to be given the opportunity to travel where we want to show ourselves.’’

The Thunder approach recruiting a bit differently, but with the same goal: Match up their players to the college of their choice.

“We are the premiere team now; nobody travels like we do,” said head coach Dave Lotti, adding his team travels far “to get the best exposure for the girls.”

Showcases, and showcase teams, keep popping up, said Savino. “They are giving the girls opportunities to be seen more than years ago, to be seen and get scholarships. What they do with it is up to them.’’

Legion’s state tourney Cohasset Post 118 and Morrisette Post 294 of Quincy both advanced to the eight-team American Legion baseball state tournament, which started yesterday at Riverside Park in Hudson. The championship game of the double-elimination tournament is scheduled for Wednesday. Cohasset clinched its berth with a 9-5 win over Braintree while Morrisette beat Somerset, 11-4.

Colleen Casey can be reached at colleen_casey@emerson.edu.