Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, organized youth sports across the country felt the fallout with registration numbers dropping and athletes missing prime developmental years.
Few age groups were hit harder than those born before 2011, and that’s what makes the upcoming Ontario Select Softball Tournament Association (OSSTA) U15 Novice Championship in Newmarket a monumental success.
Hosted by Newmarket Minor Softball Association, the tournament will bring 24 U15 softball teams from across the province to Newmarket Saturday, Aug. 26 and Sunday, Aug. 27.
“This is one of the largest tournaments that I know of in recent years, especially post-COVID,” said Glenn Burton, executive director of Newmarket Minor Softball Association. “Most the OSSTA tournaments tend to be one-day tournaments with between six and eight teams.”
The impact of the pandemic on the U15 age group specifically is what makes this tournament so interesting to Burton and why there’s so much excitement in the air around it.
“U15 and U13 were the groups that got most impacted from the shutdown during COVID,” Burton said. “They were at that peak development age that is usually when you take your game to the next level.”
Burton said that if you were to poll softball associations across Ontario, most would likely show that the U15 group is their lowest registration in 2023.
“Simply because a lot of girls didn’t enter into the game or stepped away from the game during COVID,” he said. “So for us to see 24 teams, that’s just amazing. It’s really amazing to see young girls being given the safe space to enter into this level of competition and take their game to the next level.”
One of the key aspects of this tournament, Burton said, is breaking down barriers in sport and ensuring a safe space for girls and women to thrive.
Frankie Billingsley, who umpired at the Tokyo Olympics and is one of the highest ranked softball umpires in Canada, will even be behind the plate for the tournament’s championship game.
“She’ll be meeting and talking with our umpires and sharing her expertise,” said Burton. “To get a top-ranked official like her is ridiculous and we really want to push the agenda to build female leaders on and off the diamond. We have a huge focus on developing female umpires and coaches because the game is bigger than a bat, a ball, and a glove.”
This will be the fourth tournament hosted by Newmarket Minor Softball Association this summer, with the previous three being one-day tournaments with between eight and 10 teams.
“We’ve bought 26 teams here already since June,” said Burton. “To host these tournaments you really need all the parts working together and our stellar relationship with the Town of Newmarket has been key.”
The planning for this tournament, in particular, began at the end of last season and will take about 40 volunteers to execute.
It wouldn’t be able to happen without the collaboration of softball associations across Ontario, with the Vaughan Vikings even providing two extra diamonds for the first day of the tournament.
“It’s a really good York Region story of associations coming together to support what’s going to be close to 300 girls playing softball over two days,” said Burton.
Burton is hopeful that a tournament of this capacity won’t only create a buzz throughout Newmarket that brings people out, but will help support businesses in the community with teams from out of town coming in.
“They all have to come to town, they all have to eat, they all shop… the impact is massive and the driver is youth sports,” said Burton. “We want to promote Newmarket and the businesses. If you’re planning a team dinner, we want to show off the venues to eat. It’s all about hyping up the local amenities.”
Creating an atmosphere that goes beyond the action on the diamond is what Newmarket Minor Softball Association is aiming for with this tournament, they want it to be a community event.
“Coming out of COVID, we want any tournament we host to be the best. We want the players to arrive at Ray Twinney and say, ‘what the heck,’ because it’s all out,” said Burton. “The parents, volunteers and coaches are all excited about it. It’s about all the stuff going on like food, music, and fun cool things for people to do. The Town of Newmarket is helping us take these venues to a level that when our visiting associations come in, they’ll take pictures of the venue because it’s so awesome.”
Knowing that community events are the heart and soul of Newmarket, Burton and the rest of Newmarket Minor Softball Association are going all out with the extra-curricular aspects of the tournament.
“We want the community to come out,” he said. “We’ve definitely been generating a buzz this season and for the first time we’ve got people coming out to watch girls softball. It’s like a throwback to the '60s and '70s when communities would all go to the local game. We would love nothing more for the community to join in and be a part. Even if they don’t have a kid playing, they’re going to have fun.”
Win or lose, Burton said he wants teams walking away feeling like this tournament was the peak of their season, both because of the on-field fun and because of the enjoyable experience of coming to Newmarket.
“We want them to walk away talking about it being the best send-off for the end of the season that they’ve ever had,” said Burton. “We want them wanting to come back next year. If we can generate that feeling, then mission accomplished.”
The tournament begins at 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 26 at the Ray Twinney Recreation Complex, Armstrong Park, and Vaughan’s Tudor Park. The championship game will take place Aug. 27 at 3:30 p.m. at Ray Twinney.
Learn more about the tournament here.