By Amy Hughes
Kirk Walker had an idea.
The Oregon State head softball coach had been taking his team to the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Columbus, Ga., every few years and started to wonder why there wasn't a similar event on the west coast. Having spent a number of years in Southern California as a student and later an assistant coach at UCLA, Walker had played men's fastpitch at the Big League Dreams complex in Cathedral City, Calif., near Palm Springs.
"We had gone to the Leadoff about every other year," said Walker, "and UCLA and Arizona never made the trip out there. Half of the Pac-10 schools were looking for another place to play. There were already big tournaments in Phoenix, Fullerton, Las Vegas and San Diego. That's when I thought of Palm Springs and the Big League Dreams complex. It was a perfect fit."
Walker's dream is now in its seventh year of existence. Teams will take to the fields at the Big League Dreams complex in Cathedral City, Calif., this Thursday, February 25-Sunday, February 28.
Planning for the inaugural Cathedral City Classic, which took place in February of 2004, started late in 2001. Walker, who had spent time as part of the USA Softball coaching pool, knew that the U.S. Olympic Team would be touring in preparation for the Athens Olympics. With Arizona head coach Mike Candrea also serving as the head coach of Team USA, Walker's top priority for what is now billed as the Cathedral City Classic became commitments from Candrea and from then-UCLA head coach Sue Enquist for the Bruins participation. Both said yes.
"Once I had UCLA, Arizona and the Olympic Team, I knew this would work," said Walker. "From that point, I went after the highest ranked teams I could find that either didn't normally participate at the Leadoff or weren't invited for that year. From that first year, it was immediately a very high-RPI event and I felt like people would come because the talent was there."
People certainly did come. The Big League Dreams complex has five fields, including replicas of Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium with chair-back seats behind at each field and a glass-walled rotunda overlooking all three of those fields. The indoor area has a sports bar-type atmosphere with food, beverages and TVs available. For games taking place during the potentially cold desert evenings, fans often stake out indoor seats to watch their favorite teams.
From that first year, the the stands have always been packed, especially with large numbers of fans who simply love collegiate fastpitch. Finding seats for marquee games can be a competitive event for the fans, who spill down the foul lines to sit on the grass and watch the most anticipated games. There are two additional fields on the opposite end of the complex with a small snack bar of their own to complete the five-field complex.
"We started out going after the big schools and their fan bases," said Walker. "We realized very quickly that although each university was bringing their fan base, what brought us over the top was the support of the softball community both in the Southern California area and around the country. There is an atmosphere celebrating our game and appreciating the opportunity to enjoy such great softball."
The "celebration of softball" feeling has been prevalent at each of the six previous Cathedral City Classics, and will certainly be felt again this weekend. Of the nation's Top 25 teams as ranked by the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll, 12 of those schools will be participating in this tournament. The 30-team field includes 22 programs that participated in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, including nine Super Regional teams. Two of those programs advanced to the Women's College World Series, including perennial power Arizona and defending NCAA Champion Washington. With nearly half the field represented in the poll, it is no surprise that a dozen games over four days will feature a pair of ranked opponents.
Despite the enormous challenges of hosting a tournament more than a thousand miles away from the Oregon State campus, Walker can't imagine his season without the Cathedral City Classic as a centerpiece. "It's hugely taxing," said Walker. "The greatest challenges have been to not have our full event management, sports information and training room staffs available to run the event (due to the large distance between Corvallis and Cathedral City). But as the years have gone on, we have created a great working relationship with Deb Hartwig, owner of JustSOFTBALL who helps to supply staff for all of the games, and the Big League Dreams staff and field crews.
"As long as we continue to have the support of our University," said Walker, "I can't imagine not running this tournament every year. But if that day comes, I know there are private groups that would jump at the opportunity to run this as a business venture. We currently have a multi-year contract in place for this event and I hope that we can continue to support it. This has been a very positive thing for our sport, for Oregon State and for our softball program."