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New softball pro league chock full of ex-Cats

Nancy Evans, UA associate head softball coach and former Wildcat, pitches for the Arizona Heat, a professional softball league in Tucson.
By James Kelley
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, May 4, 2004
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Wildcats play prominent role on new Tucson major league softball team, the Arizona Heat

It might be easy to confuse the Arizona Heat and the Arizona Wildcats. But the familiarity between the nation's top college softball team and the new Tucson pro softball team hardly ends with their shared location.

The Arizona Heat ¸ the Tucson entry in the revamped National Pro Fastpitch league ¸ features a handful of former Wildcats. This includes manager Stacy Iveson and a group of other former UA players: Heat poster girl and UA acting associate head coach Nancy Evans, UA assistant coach Lisha Ribellia, Leah Braatz, Amy Hillenbrand and Alison McCutcheon. The prospective roster also boasts a pair of current Wildcats in seniors Mackenzie Vandergeest and Wendy Allen.

The Heat decided early on to draft some ex-Cats.

"I think it is a pretty easy decision," said Cindy Jordan, Heat director of operations. "Number 1, there is such a winning tradition ¸ those players were talented when they played for Arizona, and they're still extraordinarily talented. Number 2, our fan base for the Arizona Heat is going to be the same fan base as for the UA, so it makes sense to go after the hometown favorites.

"Lastly, I think that if you talk about people like Nancy Evans and Leah Braatz and Amy Hillenbrand, they're just incredible individuals as well as players. You can't ask for more."

Iveson and McCutcheon also have ties to Pima Community College, as head coach and assistant coach, respectively. Pima beat the UA 1-0 in a fall tournament.

"It is about putting the fans in the seats and getting familiar faces involved with the program. That will definitely help," Iveson said.

Evans will be the subject of a billboard campaign set to launch next week.

"We feel she is one of our most notable players, and Nancy is just an incredible person for this kind of work," Jordan said. "When I call her for a photo shoot, she is there the next day. You can't beat that."

Evans, who played for the Tampa Bay Firestix in the previous incantation of the NPF was national player of the year in college in addition to being an academic and athletic All-American.

"She's also recognizable," Jordan said. "If you know anything about softball in Arizona, you say, ╬Oh, that's Nancy Evans, four-time All-American."

The NPF is re-launching next month after existing under other names in the 1990s. Other teams include the New England Riptide, the New York/New Jersey Juggernaut, the Sacramento Sunbirds, the Akron Racers and the Texas Thunder.

The 60-game season begins June 1 and runs through August. Some games will be televised on ESPN and ESPN2.

Iveson said she became involved with the Heat through Jim Tiggas. Tiggas, along with his brother Matt, the Heat's director of player personnel, heads Champion Sports Promotions Inc., the owner of the Heat. They also handle the Tucson Invitational games, a 55-team college tournament, and enlisted Iveson to help set up the Arizona All-Stars, the team the NPF All-Stars played last summer in Phoenix and Tucson.

"I've known the owner for a while," Iveson said. "I also got involved this summer when the National Professional Fastpitch league had that all-star tour. He asked me to help put together the Arizona All-Star team."

The press conference to open the league was held in Tucson's Hi Corbett Field. Last summer, the league held a barnstorming tour, which included stops in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Denver, Miami, Detroit, Phoenix, Atlanta and Chicago.

But Tucson out-drew every site.

"When it comes to fastpitch softball, Tucson I think is ground zero, if you will," Jordan said. "Mike Candrea, the UA and I would say all the way down or all the way up to little league ¸ this is a softball town."

Other than the Heat, New York/New Jersey has the most former UA players, highlighted by first baseman/outfielder Erika Hanson.

Hanson, who led the all-star team last year in fielding with a perfect fielding percentage, works in the Juggernaut front office's marketing and sponsorship departments.

The other NY/NJ former Wildcats are catcher Lindsey Collins, who hit the game-winning home run in the 2001 World Series and was the second overall pick in the WPSL draft her senior year, and outfielder Lauren Bauer, who batted .371 for the all-star team.

The Heat will play at Hi Corbett Field, which will be reconfigured for softball. Hi Corbett is the spring training home of the Colorado Rockies and former home of the Triple-A Tucson Toros, the Cleveland Indians for their spring training and USA Baseball.

Players on the Olympic team, like former UA pitcher Jennie Finch, will not play in the NPF this year, but Finch, who was at the press conference introducing the league, is expected to join after the Olympic games.

As part of the festivities for NPF's all-star game, the first- and second-place teams will take on the Olympic team in a doubleheader.

The NPF will launch with the help of Major League Baseball which will act as an official development partner.

"As a father and grandfather, I know firsthand the positive impact that participating in diamond sports can have on children and their families," said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig at the press conference. "I am proud of the relationship between Major League Baseball and National Pro Fastpitch, and know it will create valuable opportunities for young women to play this exciting sport and to be inspired by some of the top athletes in the world of fastpitch."

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