Fastpitch championships on the way

Heather Coakwell, left, and Kelsey Gill are co-chairs of the organizing committee for the Western Canadian Fastpitch Championships which is a men's event set for July in Hay River.

Heather Coakwell, left, and Kelsey Gill are co-chairs of the organizing committee for the Western Canadian Fastpitch Championships which is a men’s event set for July in Hay River.

In late July, some of the best fastball players in Western Canada will be heading for Hay River.

That’s because it was announced last week that the community will host the 2016 Western Canadian Masters Fastpitch Championships from July 28 to 31.

That event is for men 40 years of age and older, although those age restrictions are eased to 35 in areas, like the NWT, where there are not as many players.

The two co-chairs of the organizing committee – Kelsey Gill and Heather Coakwell – expect it will be a major sports event for Hay River.

It’s for Western Canada, said Coakwell, “so it’s pretty big.”

Gill said each province and territory is allowed to send three teams but Manitoba won’t be represented and it is uncertain whether B.C. will be participating.

“We’ll probably get two from Saskatchewan, and three from Alberta,” she said. “We know we have three from the territories.”

The Hay River Heat is the reigning NWT champs, she noted. “They’re, of course, our home team.”

Gill said Yukon and Nunavut have also been invited to send teams but it is believed they don’t have any active fastpitch teams.

It’s the first time the annual tournament will be held in Hay River.

Along with the Hay River Heat, the NWT will be represented by a team from Yellowknife and another from Inuvik.

The tournament is being organized by a 10-person committee, and all but one of the committee members are women, even though it’s a men’s tournament.

“You can’t be affiliated with the team and be running the tournament,” explained Gill.

She said her husband, Glenn Smith, is the organizer of the Hay River Heat, and that is part of the reason she’s involved.

“Heather had interest because she does a lot of work for the community,” Gill said. “So we decided to go ahead and put this on. And then we asked a bunch of people we knew who get stuff done, and, of course, that’s usually women. So there you are.”

Coakwell said there are players with the Heat who have offered to help.

“But, of course, they can’t be affiliated,” she said. “So we said we would run with it.”

Gill said the organizers have been working behind the scenes for a while and had their first meeting in February.

Many on the organizing committee don’t have husbands or boyfriends playing fastpitch to explain why they’re involved.

“I don’t have anybody playing,” said Coakwell.

Instead, she and Gill say they and others on the committee are working on the tournament for the good of the community.

“It’s a big deal to get people to come here and see what Hay River has to offer,” said Gill, noting it will draw tourists who will spend money in town.”That’s the real reason is get people here and see what we have to offer, and hopefully they’ll return for vacations, camping, fishing.”

Coakwell explained things in pretty much the same way.

“It’s not just about men’s fastball,” she said. “It’s definitely going to be a big event.”

They also expect the championships will be popular among sports fans in Hay River.

“We’re hoping to get 200 people out there watching the games,” said Gill.

The games will be played at the Pine Point Twin Ball Diamonds.

Fastpitch is much different from the slo-pitch form of softball.

Most notably there is windmill pitching, the field is smaller, the bases are closer together, and players can steal bases.

“There’s always something happening,” said Gill. “Not like slo-pitch where you’re waiting for lobs to come down from the sky. It’s quick.”

There is no women’s fastpitch team in Hay River – both Gill and Coakwell play slo-pitch – and only one men’s team, the Heat.

That team practises and travels to tournaments elsewhere, or competes in tournaments held in Hay River like last year’s territorials.

The organizers of the 2016 Western Canadian Masters Fastpitch Championships are still looking for volunteers and community sponsors for the event.

–Paul Bickford