Sunbirds ready to take flight

By: Andrew DilucciaJournal Assistant Sports Editor
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For years there was a limit for girls who played softball. There was little league, ASA, high school and for most the top of the heap was college, with a chance for the very few to make the Olympic team. But now female softball players have a chance to take their game to the professional level, thanks to the National Pro Fastpitch League and the California Sunbirds, which open their season Tuesday at home against the Arizona Heat at 7:35 p.m. ?You watch the population of people at the Women?s College World Series and there?s a lot more interest,? said Lincoln High grad and Sunbirds draftee Heather Field. ?There?s a lot more interest into the game and softball is getting more respect. When I was little I didn?t have this, now girls have the opportunity of being a pro athlete (in softball). There?s something else besides the Olympic team to shoot for.? The NPF? born out of the Women?s Professional Softball League from the late 1990s ? is a restructured version of the WPSL with each franchise being individually owned and operated and being spread across the country, instead of the just in the Southeast and Midwest. One of those teams is the California Sunbirds. Originally called the Sacramento Sunbirds, the team changed its name to California after the club was forced to move when its agreement to use Freedom Park at McClellan Park in Sacramento fell through. Now the club is based in Stockton at the United Sports Complex. ?We lost the parking and had some environmental issues,? general manager and owner of the Sunbirds Glenn Wolff said. ?We looked at Sacramento City College and Sacramento State but we couldn?t work it out with them for a number of reasons. We had no options left, we had to look outside of the city.? The team has a found a welcome home in the Stockton community and the Sunbirds have signed a one-year deal with the Complex. The club will keep its offices in Sacramento and the team said moving back to Sacramento might be an option, but if the Stockton community receives the team very well and they have a good experience there, the club could call that city home for a long time. ?A little bit,? was Field?s response when asked if it was difficult making the move down Highway 99. ?Especially with gas prices going up. When we were first going to be at McClellan I was excited because I knew a lot of friends and family could come watch ? now that?s quite a hike for us. But now we get the name California Sunbirds instead of Sacramento, which incorporates the whole state. That?s kind of neat.? Field is one of about 24 hopefuls that were pared down to 16 over the Memorial Day weekend. Drafted fourth in the college senior draft from the University of Virginia, the Lincoln resident is happy to be battling for a spot and competing against such strong competition. ?The talent and the level of play is very high,? Field said. ?When you play teams in college you know there?s one or two great players on the team, on this team all those one or two great players are here.? ?She?s done a very good job, a very nice job for us,? Sunbirds manager Tim Kiernan said. ?She?s a strong hitter, has great bat speed and she?s versatile and plays a lot of positions and listens very well. She?s young and possibly could be a player that comes into this league this year or next and stays a long time.? Another Placer County player that could don a Sunbirds uniform is Del Oro grad Christen Bedwell. The club?s No. 2 draft choice in the senior draft, Bedwell could not make herself available to the team because she was still in school at Cal State Northridge until late last week, where she became a third-team All-American for the Matadors. Kiernan said he will meet with Bedwell this week and she might join the club. The average pay for a player in the six-team league, which features squads in locations like Maine, New York/New Jersey and Akron, Ohio, is about $2,400 per month along with a per diem when the team?s on the road. The NPF also has some strong backing to help it off the ground. Major League Baseball has partnered up with the NPF to help promote the league. The Sunbirds did a clinic at SBC Park over the weekend after a Giants game. Wolf has years of experience in the sport of baseball, working in the front office of the San Francisco Giants? triple-A affiliate, the Fresno Grizzlies. Kiernan also has a wealth of knowledge in softball, coaching in the WPSL and leading the Sacramento City College Panthers to 14 championships and producing over 50 All-Americans. The Sunbirds? season will run through late August, when playoffs begin. There is a contract in the works that will have the NPF?s World Series broadcast by ESPN, with an option to have a game of the week in the future. Wolf sees the league expanding by four more teams in the near future and said after the Olympics are over, many of those players from the Olympic team will filter into the NPF, making it the best stage for women?s professional softball. ?We?re attracting a lot of attention, and if you like softball, this is the best,? Kiernan said. ?We?re out there as another venue.?