At 8-years old, softball is about having fun. Everything else—hitting, running, catching—comes with time and experience. But if a player can do it all, and have fun doing it, the more power to them.
The Hamilton Hurricanes can do it all—and did. The dozen young girls that make up the Babe Ruth League program’s 8U all-star team went on a statewide tear this summer, sweeping the league’s district, state and regional tournaments and finishing with a 35-6 overall record.
The all-star team pulled players from the Hamilton Girls Softball Association’s four T-ball and four instructional level teams. Despite the having 220 girls in the program from age four to 17, and being able to select players up to eight years, the program’s most successful all-star team this season was exceptionally young.
The Hurricanes were comprised of four eight-year-olds, seven seven-year-olds and one six-year-old. Nine of the girls were entirely new to competitive softball.
Head coach and program president George Simonka said age didn’t come to matter in the team’s success—they played mature.
“It’s very surprising, for 8-year olds to have that kind of mental toughness, to not cry or get down on themselves,” Simonka said. “They went along and played the game like we taught them to. They’re very gritty.”
Simonka recalled an invitation tournament early in the season that proved the Hurricanes’ resilience. The team lost a close game in the tournament championship to Mt. Olive. They saw Mt. Olive again in tournament play down the road, and won a back-and-forth game, 6-5.
The team prevailed over and over again without a standout player, Simonka said. Instead, he and assistant coach Mike Walsh emphasized drills to improve their basic skills and a mantra of team cohesion. Having coached for three years in the program, Simonka was left impressed with the team’s chemistry.
“It bodes well for them,” Simonka said. “It bodes well for the 10U team, specifically next year when a lot of these girls will be back in the program. Our goal is get these girls ready to move up.”
Walsh, vice president of the program, was the varsity softball coach at Nottingham High School from 2006 to 2012 and an assistant coach at Passaic Valley High School from 2001 to 2004. With the former, he benefitted from a youth program such as the HGSA to provide varsity-level players. With the latter, he only wish he had.
“We have a dedicated group of parents,” Walsh said. “All the girls were great at learning, and that starts at home. The attendance at the workouts were great, and discipline from home transferred over.”
HGSA provides players with their own year-round indoor facility and two fields, along with batting cages. The girls also consistently work with the same volunteer coaches, as well as invited clinicians to help fine-tune skills. But at such a young age, only so much can be expected of the average team.
“Forget knowledge of the game—they have to acquire the skills of catching throwing and hitting,” Walsh said. “The whole team does very well in school and their intelligence was able to transfer over to the softball field, and it showed.”
Simonka said last year’s 8U Hurricanes “did a lot of things right” in their all-star campaign, so the coaching staff carried over most of the same drills and lessons. But this year’s squad proved to have strengths.
“I had more smart base-running bunting taught this year because we had more speed this year,” Simonka said.
The team caught their stride as the summer bore on. Two of their six losses came early, Simonka said, and the rest came few and far apart. They swept through the state’s top Babe Ruth teams, and the feasibility of World Series contention seemed reasonable. But Simonka said the program chose to not compete for a world series qualifier for a few reasons.
“We felt that winning regionals was a good result for our season,” Simonka said.
Last year’s 8U Hurricanes won the losers’ bracket in the first-ever 8U Babe Ruth World Series. This year’s team joined just a few of the program’s 8U teams to win the league’s regional championship. A future in the sport bodes well for the young Hurricanes, but interest remains key. Walsh believes softball is one of the most prominent “burnout” sports, where young players don’t tend to stick it out as they get older.
But at eight years old, playing softball is all about fun, and this team passed Walsh’s early-morning test. His daughter, a member of the team, would wake up at 5:30 a.m., excited to play a half-dozen games that day.
“They had a ball,” Walsh said. “If they didn’t have fun, we wouldn’t have done as well as we did.”