American Legion softball gives girls a new, welcomed opportunity in Minnesota
Teams from Parkers Prairie and Howard Lake played the first-ever softball game under the American Legion umbrella in Minnesota on May 30, 2022. Minnesota becomes the sixth state in the country to have a softball league sanctioned by the American Legion. It's the start of a new opportunity that many players and coaches have wanted for a long time.
PARKERS PRAIRIE, Minn. — Michael Arvidson of Parkers Prairie has managed the American Legion Post 219 Parkers Prairie baseball team in the summer season for 14 years.
It was a question from his daughter, Taya, after one of those games that started the ball rolling toward an equal opportunity now for softball players in Minnesota.
“My daughter started doing stats for me about 5, 6 years ago,” Arvidson said. “Four years ago, she asked me after one of the games if she’d ever be able to play Legion softball. I said, ‘No. It doesn’t exist.’”
That could have been the end of it. But Arvidson was in a situation to do something about it as a member of the baseball committee on the American Legion’s state board. It was a question that he couldn’t get out of his mind as someone who has not only coached on the diamond but also been a high school official in baseball, softball, volleyball, football and wrestling for many years.
“They thought it was a good idea, but thought it would be too much for us to handle because we have about 400 teams for (Legion) baseball (in Minnesota),” Arvidson said of the board’s reaction when he first brought up the idea of the state sanctioning a summer softball league. “It kept gaining some traction. Finally, last year in the spring they said we’ll give you our blessing, but you’re going to have to do it. I said, ‘All right then. I’m not going to take no for an answer anymore. We’re going to make this happen.’”
Arvidson, who holds the title of American Legion state softball chairman, and the Parkers Prairie community got to see years of planning come together on the afternoon of May 30, 2022 when the Parkers Prairie softball team hosted Howard Lake in Minnesota’s first-ever softball game under the umbrella of the American Legion.
Minnesota becomes the sixth state in the country to have an American Legion-sanctioned softball league.
“It’s a big deal,” Parkers Prairie third baseman Hope Koep said. “Some of us grew up with older brothers playing Legion, so we’ve always wanted to do it. It’s a really big deal and really cool that we got to put it together and get it to actually work. It’s really fun.”
Parkers Prairie wins inaugural game
Koep had a lot to do with Parkers Prairie winning the inaugural game by an 8-4 final.
She drove in her team’s first run with a sacrifice fly to left field in the bottom of the first inning. Koep ended the game with three hits and 4 RBIs after three straight singles the rest of the way.
“I was a little nervous at first,” Koep said. “Not used to the fast pitches right away and not getting the timing at first. After getting that first pitch that I flew out on, I got in a groove and then got it back as the game went on.”
Arvidson said a total of 23 programs had registered teams for this inaugural season, with the potential that one more to make 24 would be added on the final day of registration. West-Central Minnesota towns included in that are teams from Brandon-Evansville, Osakis, Browerville, Long Prairie, Swanville, Wadena and Parkers Prairie.
The season opener on May 30 was meant to feature a doubleheader between Howard Lake and Parkers Prairie, but the dangerous weather that came through that area of the state on Monday evening cut game two short after just one inning.
The very first pitch was thrown by Parkers Prairie junior Johahna McKeown. Howard Lake’s Anna Smith connected on a hard-hit ground ball that was fielded by second baseman Evelyn Grinager and thrown to Skylar Ashbaugh at first for an out.
McKeown went all seven innings for Parkers Prairie to complete the win. Howard Lake’s Cali Elg drove in the first-ever run with a single in the top of the first inning.
Arvidson spoke to the crowd on the microphone ahead of the starting lineups for game one. The Color Guard brought the flag to the center of the infield for the national anthem on Memorial Day before the ceremonial first pitch was thrown out by Minnesota American Legion Commander Tom Fernlund of St. Cloud.
“To have the vision four years ago, we thought this could be a real opportunity, a real possibility,” Arvidson said. “It’s something I feel is long overdue with baseball being 96 years in. That’s 96 years behind for the ladies. It’s a special year with it being the Title IX 50th anniversary too. When I got here after doing our pancake feed up town, there were fans already lined up an hour before the game. I went around and counted, and counted about 125 people. It’s really special.”
Arvidson’s daughter, who will soon be 14, was standing next to her dad as he talked about the new league with the game going on in the background.
“It’s exciting,” Taya said with a smile when asked about her own future playing Legion softball.
An opportunity for all
There has long been softball through the summer in many communities across Minnesota, but it is not always as easily accessible for everyone.
Like in almost every sport, travel-team opportunities exist on club programs where students travel longer distances to take part in tournaments with athletes from other communities.
That may be attractive to high-level players who want that extra level of competition.
For many others, the chance to play baseball and softball is more about simply having fun spending the summers with teammates from their school season.
“Now you’re bringing the game back into your home town,” Arvidson said. “You’re going to have a home game with a neighboring town. You can get a crowd and community involved. That’s going to drive, maybe not your top players to play, but it will drive the middle group or others who are important on a roster 1-18. Some of them, if they’re going to sit on a bench, they’re not going to go on a travel team. Now you’re going to get a chance to play. That’s the big goal is an opportunity for all.”
John Stigman, a softball coach for 25 years, is the head coach of the Osakis Silverstreaks’ high school program. About 10 years ago, Stigman took over the organizing duties of a summer, non-sanctioned league they call the West Central Softball League.
The league got its start out of Long Prairie as an opportunity for U14 and U17-aged players to compete against other communities within close proximity to each other. Today, the league features teams from U10, U12, U14 and U17 age levels.
Like in baseball at the Senior Legion level , softball teams under the American Legion umbrella are allowed to play up to age 19.
The programs within the West Central Softball League that are now signed up under the American Legion are still choosing to field teams with primarily players who have not graduated. One of the goals is to have the summer still be about developing players for their high school teams in a fun, but more competitive atmosphere.
“Softball has so many different worlds,” Stigman said. “The baseball world is pretty structured. You have your Babe Ruth, you go to VFW and then Legion. Then you go into the softball world and you have all these different things that are a lot of travel and club teams. To me, the softball world becomes more about the individual player going to play for club teams than it does about playing for your community. That’s kind of why we started doing the Thursday night league, non-sanctioned, just so kids could play with their teammates.”
For many of these athletes, American Legion softball is the best of both worlds -- a chance to have fun with their teammates while still growing their games and having something more to play for in a structured playoff setting at summer’s end.
“I think it’s really going to be good for rural areas of Minnesota,” Stigman said. “The club thing is kind of a bigger city thing. I think the rural areas are where this Legion thing, if they can get it going, is going to have the greatest impact. We’re kind of excited for it so at least we can do something past what we do on Thursday nights. Have a little bit more of a playoff structure.”
American Legion baseball dates back to July 17, 1925 when the South Dakota Legion created the first baseball program in the country.
Minnesota Legion followed suit as community posts started sponsoring baseball teams in 1926. The first American Legion state baseball tournament was held in Mankato that same year. This summer, Mankato will be the host of the first-ever softball state tournament.
“We’re heading back there. We’re going to field an 8-team tournament,” Arvidson said. “We have a banquet on Friday night, July 29. Everybody will play two games on Saturday, and then everyone will get one game on Sunday.”
Arvidson is quite confident that the number of states with an American Legion softball league will go from six this summer to as many as 13 by next year. The goal, he said, is to get American Legion softball into the 33 states required for the National Legion Department to officially sanction the program.
“It’s not that I want to take away from all these other opportunities, but I feel like there’s going to be more players playing if they don’t have to leave every weekend for tournaments,” Arvidson said. “If they can play on a Tuesday and Thursday and have the weekends to be kids. We get three months in the summer around here to enjoy the weather and the lakes.”
Parkers Prairie and Howard Lake players and coaches got together for a photo after the inaugural game on Memorial Day. Who won or lost did not really matter at that point.
These players were happy to be a part of history as they looked forward to a summer on the diamond with friends.
“This is a lot more fun for sure,” Koep said. “We just want to create more bonds, getting more playing time with (teammates) and create some more memories with them. We want to have good attitudes and enjoy playing softball.”