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Remarkable civic support vital to success of Napanee ball teams

August 11, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

NAPANEE — As he stood between the ball diamonds at the Fairgrounds complex one night not long ago, Roger Mills graciously smiled to a woman who handed him an envelope. He thanked her; she nodded quietly and walked away.

Neither of them made a fuss.

Mills didn’t look at what was inside. He knew it was a contribution in support of the teams from Softball Napanee bound for western Canada and a championship tournament of some sort this month. Whatever it was would be appreciated.

Later, he took a peek inside the envelope and smiled.

“We are blessed,” he said.

Not many amateur sports organizations in the land can talk of perennial success the way Softball Napanee can, but perhaps even more difficult than assembling teams annually capable of such success on the field must be the task associated with the other side of that coin—finding the money to send them to those big tournaments. It’s one thing to find a spot in the Fairgrounds field house for another championship pennant; it’s quite another to rustle up the $25,000 or so it takes just to get a team where it has to go to win it.

Add to that dimension the challenge of doing so in a community of 10,000 or so souls, where it’s no longer a novelty to contend for a national championship. Take the junior Express, for instance, which will compete for the Canadian title this week in Irma, Alta. It will be the juniors’ sixth visit to the national championship since 2007.

This long ago stopped being a special occasion. It’s a hat gets passed every year, but the wellspring of support never seems to run dry.

“You’d think it would,” Mills said, “but when you ask, everybody wants to do their part for the kids.

“You go to people you know, and the next team would go to people they know … everybody’s behind softball. It’s a thing. Softball’s still a thing in Napanee.

“We’re fortunate; very, very fortunate.”

This year the Napanee group has to deal not only with the quality and frequency of its teams, but the quantity, as well. The peewees were in a western Canada event in Lloydminster, Sask. (they won the bronze medal), the midgets were at the western Canada championship in the Battlefords, Sask. (they won the gold) and the novice girls were at the national festival last week in White Rock, B.C.

That’s four teams, all travelling a fair piece.

“Usually (Softball Napanee has) a bit of reserve for teams to travel but this year’s going to be a bigger hit than most years,” Mills said. “Sometimes (the tournaments) are in Ontario. It’s a little difference in travel (cost) to go to Owen Sound or to Irma, Alta.

“A tankful of gas gets you to Owen Sound; a tankful of gas gets you to the airport (when you’re going out west).”

Things have changed over the years, Mills said. In the past, there would be organizations that would just say, ‘if you need something, let us know.’

“Any time there was a need, they’d be there to say, ‘Make sure no kid goes unequipped,’” he said.

These days, the donations tend to be more personal.

“It’s not like we’re getting three or four thousand dollars at a time anymore,” Mills said. “Here we’re getting three or four hundred dollars from people.”

Part of Napanee’s success derives from continuity. Roger and his wife, Karen, have embodied Softball Napanee for years. Their son, Brent, played on four provincial and two national championship teams, and now coaches both the Napanee midgets and juniors, the latter with his father and his uncle, Greg.

Taylor Brown, a member of the junior team, follows in the footsteps of his father, Lester, who played on Napanee teams with Greg Mills. Catcher Cody Brooks is another of the current Express with a legacy in Napanee ball. Hakken Zatterberg, the midget player added to the junior roster for the Canadian championship, is Roger Mills’s nephew.

“That’s part of what the thing is,” Mills said. “The next generation is coming through. We’re taking good ball players and good ball players are becoming good coaches.

Randy Holmes and brothers Cory and Bryan Brooks are other ex-Express players who are now coaching.

‘They’re interested in it so they keep it going,” Mills said. “They drum the bushes to find kids who want to play.”

When regular folks see that kind of dedication, the desire of those who have been helped to want to help others, perhaps it’s not surprising that they respond generously. The older players, Mills said, do much of their own fundraising.

“These kids get to play for next to nothing,” Mills said. “Softball Napanee doesn’t charge these kids much to play ball. They’re very fortunate. It’s a real testament to what our community does.”

Napanee begins play today in the junior national championship against the Newfoundland representative, Kelly’s Pub. Tonight, the Express will face the Owen Sound Selects.

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