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July 26, 2006

A L U M N I    U P D A T E

D'AMICO REACHING NEW HEIGHTS WITH PFX TOUR

Former Eastern star enjoying her time delivering softball message to youngsters

By Matt Fitzgerald '06
and
Bob Molta
Sports Information Director

With the recent decision having been made to leave softball out of the 2012 Olympics, one might think that the sport has been fading into obscurity. 

Not true.

Just ask Eastern Connecticut State University softball alumnus Shari D’Amico ’04, who is touring the United States this summer as a member of the inaugural ProFastpitch X-treme (PFX) Tour, which brings professional and amateur players together for a weekend of clinics, competition and autographs.

In assembling the players, tour organizers were interested in high-caliber players who had a track record of being involved with the players of the future. Eastern head coach Diana Pepin recommended D’Amico, who submitted a videotape and resume to tour organizers. In mid-March, Dot Richardson, a former two-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the tour’s organizers, formally invited D’Amico aboard.

While the PFX Tour showcases 26 professional players – eight of whom are current or former members of the U.S. Olympic team – it is much more than simply series of exhibition games. Rather, it provides young athletes the opportunity to learn from and interact with their favorite stars. 

“It’s not just about playing ability,” says D’Amico. “It’s more about giving to the kids.”

D’Amico, a Trumbull native and former four-year Eastern letterwinner under Pepin -- says it best when she notes that “it’s probably more special for me to be working with (the youngsters) than for them to see me play.” 

Even though this is the tour’s first season, it has been an unqualified success at each of its first four stops on an eventual nine-stop excursion, generating enthusiastic crowds of 3,000 or more at diverse locations ranging from Orlando and Marietta, Ohio to St. Louis and Sacramento. It began Memorial Day weekend in Oklahoma City and concluded in late October with the PFX national championship in that same city. The tour just wrapped up a there-day visit to St. Louis for the Pro-Am Challenge.

One of the most impressive feats took place at the Disney National Jamboree in Orlando.  After a three hour rain delay, the pros were pleasantly surprised when thousands of fans remained in attendance, eager to cheer on D’Amico and her teammates.  Such a loyal fan base helped the tour accomplish its goal of promoting the popularity of the sport worldwide, which hopefully will encourage other countries to join the movement to get softball back in the Olympics. 

 

The tour is comprised of former collegiate players from all three NCAA divisions, but is dominated by former All-Americas from top Division I softball programs such as UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State and Stanford. One of only three players on the tour from the Division III level, D’Amico was impressed by the accomplishments and talent level of her teammates, but not intimidated. Batting against three-time Olympic champion and four-time UCLA first-team All-America Lisa Fernandez on the first tour stop in Oklahoma City, D’Amico singled in her third at-bat.

Pretty heady stuff  for a Division III athlete without an All-America label, national championship ring or even a conference championship plaque.

An Eastern letterwinner between 2001 and 2004, D’Amico was one of the most versatile players ever in a program which boasts more All-America softball players (35) than any at any level in New England.

In her career, D’Amico never batted below .339 in a season and is currently ranked in the program’s all-time Top Ten in hits (164), batting average (.345), RBI (82) and total bases (226). She is also ranked in two career fielding and two career pitching categories.

A two-time team captain, D’Amico received the team’s Best Hitter Award three times and earned the Coaches’ Award and Gold Glove Award as a sophomore. As a senior, she shared the prestigious Jeff Anderson Memorial Award, named in honor of the late Eastern softball coach for commitment and dedication to the program. In her final year at Eastern, she also shared the Holly E. Zimmerman Memorial Award, which is presented to a junior or senior Physical Education or Sport and Leisure Management major for academic determination and athletic contributions.

As a freshman at Eastern, D’Amico played second base and batted third; as a sophomore she played first base and batted third; as a junior she played second base and batted fifth; and as a senior, she played shortstop and batted third.  In all but her senior year, she was also one of the staff’s two regular pitchers, appearing in 49 games and pitching just under 250 innings. Fittingly, she was named first-team All-New England at the utility position by the ECAC in each of her final two seasons.

It was this versatility, in large part, which made D’Amico attractive to tour organizers.

Looking to attend a small school with a respected physical education major that was close to home, D’Amico chose Eastern following a distinguished, albeit unspectacular,  four-year career at Trumbull (Conn.) High School. At Eastern, she stood out as a talented all-around  performer on four teams which hovered around the .500 level, only one of which managed to qualify for a post-season tournament.

Those who witnessed D’Amico’s achievements on the softball field at Eastern would likely agree that she could have been successful playing at the Division II level or even in a mid-level Division I program. If pressed, D’Amico might agree, but has no time or interest mulling over “what-ifs.”

“I do look back often and think of things that I could have done differently,” says the 5-foot-5 inch, 130 pound D’Amico. “But I am happy with my decision (to attend Eastern). As a player, I challenged myself mentally and physically, and that is all I could ask of myself, regardless of (the level of play). I was pushed from freshman year to senior year to become my best and to help my team excel,” she adds. “Through the help of coach Pepin, I developed and matured as a player to reach my potential, which helped me become a PFX athlete.”

In addition to her collegiate career, the 23-year-old D’Amico has played every summer since her early teen years for the Stratford Seahawks, an organization managed by her father, Tom, an electrical contractor. This year, the Seahawks have moved up the open division after three years as a 23-and-under team. Facing top competition in the Northeast throughout the summer, the Seahawks also play regularly against the 26-time major fastpitch national champions Stratford Brakettes at legendary Frank DeLuca Hall of Fame Field in Stratford.

 

An only child, D’Amico is quick to point out the support her father, and mother, JoAnn have provided. In addition to attending every game in Stratford, JoAnn flew to Oklahoma City in late May to be there for the inaugural tour stop. Two weeks later, Tom flew to Orlando for the Disney National Jamboree.

 

Although the PFX Tour is a one-of-a-kind experience of sorts for D’Amico, this is not her first time helping younger athletes improve their game.  In fact, D’Amico’s history of “giving back” to the sport through clinics and camps is what appealed most  when PFX Tour organizers came calling. When asked about the emphasis upon instruction on the PFX Tour, Shari responds with a smile:  “I love it.  You do the clinics, and then the girls run up to you after the game and say ‘I used what you did in the clinic!’” 

According to Pepin, D’Amico’s versatility – she can virtually play any position on the field and play it well --  along with her passion and caring make her a perfect fit for the tour. “There are players who can play at the Division III level and can be successful,” points out Pepin, “but then there are players like Shari who really challenge themselves and play for the love of the game. Those are the ones,” adds Pepin, “that will make something of themselves. Shari is a prime example that hard work pays off.”

Since graduating from Eastern two years ago, D’Amico has developed two clinics of her own which she conducts with the help of her friends and teammates from the Seahawks.   Full Count is a weekly clinic that runs year-round and focuses on a different aspect of the game each week.  She also conducts a week-long clinic each August for players throughout Connecticut. 

In the fall, D’Amico is beginning her second full year as a Health and Physical Education teacher at Stamford High School. And although she would love to remain involved in the tour in some way – as either a player or in an administrative capacity –  her commitment in future years is clouded because of conflicts with her fulltime teaching position, as well as with her own softball teaching and playing endeavors.

There is also a money issue. The stipend provided each player on the tours covers less than half of travel expenses, leaving players to come up with roughly $4000. While the high-profile players are attractive to sponsors, fundraising events and donations from friends and family defrayed only a small percentage of D’Amico’s expenses.

“The Olympic players, that’s the reason this tour is going to work.  It’s not because of me,”  she says.

Although there is truth in D’Amico’s contention that the marquee players – Olympians and former Division I All-Americas -- will attract many fans, she may be overlooking the vital role that the less recognizable players play in the tour’s ability to meet its professed objective.  The concept of a small-college athlete playing on par with the country’s elite may serve as great inspiration for young girls who are in their formative softball years.

In the final analysis, it may be players in the mold of Shari D’Amico that determine whether the tour will, in fact, flourish.

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