CLEARWATER — For girls with Division 1 softball dreams, the journey sometimes begins while playing for competitive travel teams — and even before they reach high school.
The Safety Harbor Stone Crabs offer local players the chance to refine their skills and prepare for softball at the next level. And with colleges getting early commitments from players in eighth and ninth grades, a little early preparation never hurts.
"What you've got here is literally the best 12-year-old team in the five-county area," manager Gary Kifer said.
Kifer and his partner, John Galloway, founded the club in 2011 so players would have a chance to compete against the top teams in the Southeast. Trips to Gainesville and Orlando are common, and the team has traveled as far away as Savannah, Ga.
The team will be going even farther at the end of the month.
The Stone Crabs qualified for the ASA National Championships in Bloomington, Ind., on July 27-Aug. 3. The tournament is open to teams from all 50 states. As of July 15, the Stone Crabs, along with three of their in-state rivals, were set to make the trip.
The fierce competition requires constant practice. Add in the hours of travel and that makes for a large time commitment for girls who have to balance schoolwork most months as well.
An average week for the Stone Crabs consists of three practices and anywhere from four to 11 games on tournament weekends. The team plays 10 months out of the year, taking off September and December. All in all, the Stone Crabs play around 130 games per calendar year.
For Mackenzie Smith's mother, Michelle, it's all about ensuring the girls make the right choices with their free hours.
"They think about softball all the time," Smith said. "When it comes down to whether they're going to the beach or they're going to be playing softball on the weekend, they want to be here."
The extensive practice and tournament schedule can raise questions about arm issues. Kifer counters that the softball throwing motion is a more natural movement. While he feels that overuse does not cause damage as it does in baseball, he still plays it safe with his pitchers.
"We are very socialistic in divvying up the innings because I don't want our pitchers throwing 20 innings in a weekend," Kifer said. "I'm a personal trainer, that's what I do for a living, so one of our emphases is on preventative work and stretching."
Kifer plays with a roster of 12 girls. As his players graduate, the coaching staff relies on the team's reputation to keep the roster stocked with talent.
"It becomes kind of a mild college recruitment process," Kifer said. "Everyone's a free agent all the time. Last year we qualified for nationals, so because of that we basically go select players."
In addition to keeping his players' arms fresh, Kifer does what he can to prepare them for college. He allows the girls to attend camps held at major Division 1 universities, and organizes information sessions for families about recruiting and scholarships.
"As far as letting kids know, there's a lot of misinformation out there," Kifer said. "We actually just had a seminar for our kids and families to help with that."
This already has some of the players excited about the future.
"I just went to the UF camp," Taylor Norwood said. "It was cool because a lot of the players got to come out and show us things."
All the hours of practice and work have led up to the Stone Crabs' trip to nationals.
"We've definitely scouted," Kifer said. "We know a lot of the teams throughout the country that we're going to be playing. You always have to look out for the Texas teams, California, Arizona, Georgia, and then you just don't know after that."
No matter the outcome, the tournament will give Kifer's players added experience that could help attract college suitors in a few years.