Proof of the growth of softball in West Texas isn't hard to find.
Lubbock Christian University's program has made three trips to the NAIA national tournament in as many seasons, winning the championship in its inaugural 2008 season, and Texas Tech is coming off its first NCAA postseason appearance in nearly a decade. New high school programs have popped up all over the South Plains, where half a dozen teams made at least the regional quarterfinals this season.
The sport's growth spurt helped attract this week's West Texas Duel on the Diamond, a five-game series to be played in Lubbock between the Florida Pride and Chicago Bandits. The teams compete in National Pro Fastpitch, a pro softball league.
"What (NPF) wanted to do was branch out of the regular towns that they play in because softball has grown so big," said Scott Harrison, Sports Director at Lubbock Sports. "They contacted me and we basically sat down and worked out an agreement for them to bring this in."
The series will mark NPF's opening weekend of the 2010 season. Four teams comprise the league, and several Olympians will be participating, including gold-medal winners Jennie Finch, Natasha Watley, Jessica Mendoza, Caitlin Lowe, Cat Osterman, and Kelly Kretschman.
Former Texas Tech softball coach Renee Luers-Gillispie, who reinstated the school's program in 1995 after a 10-year hiatus, will be a volunteer coach for the Pride.
"Softball is growing by leaps and bounds here," said Luers-Gillispie, who now coaches at the University of Central Florida "When we first started the programs here at Tech, we were still playing slow pitch. It wasn't fastpitch. Since then, from Amarillo all the way down to Midland you can see the expansion of fastpitch softball in this area."
Play begins at 7:05 p.m. today at Rocky Johnson Field, and the two teams will play every day through Sunday's 1:05 p.m. first pitch. Saturday's game will be televised live on ESPN2 at 4:05 p.m.
In addition to the regular-season games, the players will help run clinics on Thursday and Friday for softball players ages 6-18.
Harrison said the event could become an annual mainstay if it's a success.
Osterman, a Houston-area native who played at the University of Texas, was drafted out of college but did not sign. She later signed with a Houston team that now plays its games in Rockford, Ill., and was named the MVP of the 2009 NPF Championship Series. She was traded to the Pride a month ago.
"In essence kids are still playing, girls are still dreaming for that college scholarship, and now we're trying to let them know that there's another level after that and you can play pro," Osterman said. "That's part of the reason we do our series here versus at one of our home sites is to increase our exposure."
The Bandits have won back-to-back regular-season titles in the NPF and won the Championship Series in 2008.
Tickets to the games will be $10 for reserved seating and $5 for general admission.
"The young ladies coming up through the panhandle of Texas can't miss this," Luers-Gillispie said. "They cannot miss this because you're going to see the best of the best playing this weekend."
(A-J reporter Tommy Magelssen contributed to this report.)
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PRO SOFTBALL/Duel on the Diamond to showcase top professional talent