Foundation to a Purpose
USSSA Women’s Conference
The USSSA Women’s Conference is going on its 3rd year of existence. Women around the United States have been eager to pursue a long-term career in the game of softball. The Conference provides another path for women to continue this passion, whether they are former college athletes, mothers, or career women. It is a secure place where they can bond, create memories, and dominate in the game. The idea of implementing a Women’s Conference was discussed for many years as contributors saw the desire and potential it could have to advance the game in the future.
Don Cooper, Director of Softball/Associations at Easton Baseball/Softball, at first started watching Women’s Slowpitch Softball, fascinated with the hard work and talent these players had. This led to his unexpected coaching career for slowpitch teams in the late 90s. His career in slowpitch softball took off when he helped Team Extreme based in Seattle, Washington, who was eager to evolve their program with sponsorships, raffles, auctions, and fundraisers so they could afford to play in big tournaments and improve the overall game of slowpitch. Cooper’s mentality was to contribute to right the wrong within the Women’s Slowpitch program. At the top level of Women’s Slowpitch, the talent was there but there weren’t enough teams or sponsorships to fund the program. Cooper wanted to change this for the players, teams, and the sport. Going forward, he remained invested and in tune with the game.
Strojan Kennison, the Director of Conference USSSA, comes from one of the strongest women’s programs in the Pacific Northwest out of Washington and Oregon. This location set the groundwork for the Women’s Conference Slowpitch program. Competitive teams such as Seattle Express, Team Combat (now known as Derby Girls) Orange Crush, Team Cartel, Softball Soul, all grew the game outward from the Pacific Northwest. He and his wife, Holly, saw the potential within women’s slowpitch and created a team called Easton Boom.
Kennison also later became the director of the Women’s Conference to promote the program from behind the scenes. He got together with different manufacturers and representatives, like Don Cooper, to ensure they could promote and develop a platform to showcase the Women’s Slowpitch teams. Kennison grew this appreciation for softball from his father, who taught him a lot about the game. He remembered being the kid at the Smoky Mountain Classic sliding down the hill by the fields. He mentioned how significant his history with softball is and how he’s now “responsible for making sure that the people are there, and the teams end on time, start on time or even get completed.” He also stressed how important it was to “see the pure joy of the game itself take place and always making sure the game itself is the number one priority.”
Spark of the Program
These men had a huge part in the development of the Women’s Conference, but what will be remembered for years to come is the 2012 Homerun Derby event at the USSSA Men’s Major World Series.
This significant event turned the idea of the implementation of a Women’s Conference into an actual reality. An ambitious woman, by the name of Christian Dowling, was determined to compete against the top hitters in the Men’s Conference at the Homerun Derby. Dowling’s drive to show how women can compete was what spoke to everyone within the USSSA organization. Dowling leaned on Don Cooper as well as Don DeDonatis Sr. to let her compete in the Homerun Derby. They were all for it and gave an exemption for her to battle against the men.
The Disney's Wide World of Sports Champion's Stadium was packed full of no less than 5,000 people, all teams within the Men’s Conference, bat manufacturers, fans, and top representatives. Many players wilted due to the pressure and amount of people that attended this event. Christian Dowling completely dominated, hitting balls out of the stadium during a torrential downpour. Everyone in the executive suite which included Don DeDonatis Sr, the USSSA Board of Directors, and Don Cooper, were inspired by her performance. Don Cooper stated, “I have no idea who won the home run derby that night, but I can tell you she won the night. She won over everyone. She put on an incredible show.” Christian Dowling’s performance was the focal reason behind the start of the Women’s Conference. Her impact on the program as an individual and as a player has touched everyone within the community. So much so, after her passing this past April, players from all across the country gathered on the opening night of the Cactus Classic Major in Glendale, Arizona to hold a candlelight vigil in her honor. A moment of silence was taken for the trailblazer and her many contributions to the women’s game that set the foundation today. Christian Dowling will always be remembered and be a part of the Conference USSSA’s legacy.
Shortly after Christian Dowling’s eye-catching performance, Don Cooper pulled together well-involved self-starting individuals, Strojan Kennison, Elliot Clark, Clay Dickey, to develop a more concrete plan for the creation of the Women’s Conference. The initial start was slow due to the lack of structure within each division. Most of the women’s slowpitch teams were classified as C or D, and there were only four teams in the A division and 12 in the B division across the country. Due to the minimal teams within the A and B divisions, some tournaments had to be combined to make them work. These contributors built a new classification structure, so the women felt they had a purpose and reason to play in the Conference. These women have proven they can compete and should have the same opportunity to play against tougher competition.
The contributors also set up the Women’s Conference to mirror the Men’s Conference which has been around for 51 years. The events USSSA hosts are held across the United States on the weekends, mainly during March through September. The teams have a choice as to which events they want to participate in. Depending on what place the team comes in at the event, they receive points that go towards their Class Power Rating. USSSA only accepts a select number of their top-scoring events to make the playing field fair.
In the first year of the Women’s Conference, back in 2019, there were 18 teams registered with USSSA. More than half the teams came from the West Coast in states such as Washington, Oregon, and California. These teams had the opportunity to play in 25 events that were hosted across the United States. Each team on average only played roughly five of the tournaments provided to them. Due to it being the initial start of the program, six of their top events counted towards their Class Power Rating.
In the 2020 season, COVID-19 had a huge effect on the sports industry causing a small dip within the recently new Women’s Conference program. USSSA was able to host 22 events, but the participation dropped to 17 teams for the season. Although the number of teams stayed roughly the same, the diversity of the state the teams represented had changed. Many still came from the Pacific Northwest but teams from the Eastern side started to grow, such as Florida, New Jersey, and Virginia. The average games played by the Conference teams had increased as well, entering in roughly seven of the 22 events. Although COVID-19 impacted the number of events USSSA could host last year, teams were participating more as they were eager to play against tougher competition and saw the incredible future the Conference had.
This current season, the USSSA Conference had a huge spike in team entries. 27 teams registered, ranging from states across the country including: Minnesota, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Washington, California, and more. These teams have the opportunity to play in 28 events throughout the season. So far, 27 events have occurred, only leaving the CUSSSA Championships and World Series left for the season. Of these 27 events, teams have participated in an average of nine games. The growth of the program has tremendously increased and will continue down this path in the future.
The goal of the Women’s Conference was initially to provide another outlet for playing the game of softball. After experiencing an increase in competition and popularity, USSSA will continue the branding of the Conference in hopes to gain a larger audience via media. Many of the contributors are aiming to feature the Women’s Major World Series on primetime television within the next three to five years. These women have incredible talent within slowpitch and showcasing this to the world will develop a new appreciation and era within the sports industry.
Undoubtedly, the Women’s Conference has developed such a strong community within the past three years and will continue to be a welcoming family for players in the future. These women have competed, laughed, and learned from one another which would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the individuals that jump-started the Women’s Conference. The program is a solid ground where the players can continuously rely on high expectations to develop their game as the contributors hear their calling. Strojan Kennison stated a powerful line that defines the history and future of the Women’s Program: “Always pave the way for the person that’s playing in your shadows because the person that’s playing in your shadows one day will be the person playing in the light.”