Stepping to the plate |

Stepping to the plate

Sally Roberts
Jim Grant / Nevada Appeal

The Nevada WildCats girls softball travel program is experiencing growing pains.

For its fourth season, the program has increased from one team to separate teams for four age groups.

That’s welcome growth for founders Sam Herceg and Tom Kniffen, because it means more girls can take advantage of the program, an alternative to standard city recreational softball teams.

The stated goal of the WildCats is to give girls, no matter their economic situation or skills, a chance to play softball in a program that emphasizes individualized coaching, teamwork, goal setting and academics to make softball an avenue for adult success.

While coaching his granddaughters’ softball team, Herceg, a contractor who played professional baseball and softball and coaches softball at Western Nevada College, saw how easy it was for girls to fall through the cracks in traditional recreation programs.

“Let’s create a team for the overflow — kids who don’t get to play, for any girl who wants to play, with as many teams as needed,” Herceg said of his reasoning.

So Herceg and Kniffen stepped out to create a new culture for girls softball with help from Herceg’s wife, Joyce, and others.

The WildCats is a travel program, playing against teams in other towns rather than other teams in the same city league.

The WildCats’ program is modeled after a successful travel softball program operated in partnership with Salt Lake City College.

The WildCats, with a capital “C,” partners with the Western Nevada College Wildcats program, including tapping into the skills of the college softball coaches.

The program is not limited to girls in Carson City. Players come from as far as Susanville, Winnemucca and Coleville, as well as closer communities.

“When they come from a long way away, I think they want the personal coaching,” Herceg said. “We take criticism because winning is not our number one goal.”

But with the emphasis on personal coaching, teamwork and academics, winning comes, he said.

During the first two years of the program — 2010 and 2011 — the WildCats won one game.

“But everyone had a great experience,” Herceg said. “When they won that game, we thought they’d won the World Series.”

Focusing on building the fundamentals of softball, rather than winning, paid off. Last season, the WildCats won every game. They also won three tournaments and placed second in three other tournaments.

WildCats coaches not only work with the players on softball skills, but to ensure they succeed academically.

Each player is expected to keep a journal and, if a student is struggling in school, a tutor is found through the Scholars & Champions program. It is aimed at building athleticism along with academic excellence.

“The goal is to funnel the players, to get them scholarships to further their education,” said Joyce Herceg during a recent interview at their home. “We want them to be successful in their lives.“

Last year, six WildCats players went on to college with softball scholarships. Those colleges included Long Island University and Western Oregon University, as well as the University of Nevada, Reno and Western Nevada College.

Jessie Harrison, a Douglas High School graduate and former WildCat, is attending WNC on a softball scholarship, even though she had a late start in softball.

“I hadn’t picked up a ball until my junior year of high school, and I tried out for the team,” Harrison said last week while helping with a WildCats practice.

“I love this program that Sam does. I went from not knowing how to catch a ball or throw a ball and I got into WNC.”

The WildCats’ succeeded last year both on the field and in the classroom, resulted in a barrage of calls from parents who wanted their girls in the program, Herceg said.

One of those parents was Carol Earle, whose daughter Terryn had been playing softball for five years.

This year, Terryn, 13, is on the new under-14 team.

“I think it’s a great program,” Terryn said. “I learned so much from the coaches. My hitting is way better, I’m throwing better. I learned more the first day (in practice with the WildCats) then what I learned on other teams.”

She also appreciates the personal coaching.

The coaches “get down and dirty with you,” Terryn said.

Carol Earle said she has noticed huge changes in her daughter since the girl became a WildCat.

“Her confidence is just unbelievable. Her skills, respect, physical fitness, are growing in leaps and bounds,” Earle said. “I would love to see her go on further. …

“I would love to see every girl have this opportunity.”

Expansion is good news, but it ha forced the organizers to come up with additional funds and practice fields, which are in high demand.

The WildCats recently received the OK to play on the field at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northern Nevada, as well as the field in James Lee Park in Indian Hills.

Because a number of WildCats players are from the Washoe Tribe, the team has used a field in the Dresslerville Indian Colony and there are talks about building a field specifically for the WildCats on tribal land.

Finding the funds to equip new teams and for travel expenses for multiple teams has presented its own challenges.

A major goal of the WildCats program is that there should be no cost to the athlete, so no girl is excluded due to economic issues.

The first major fundraising event is planned for June 22 at the Carson Mall.

The Cinema & Softball event will feature film director and producer Steve H. Perry, a friend of Herceg’s whose daughter was a softball player in both travel and high school softball programs.

Perry, known for such films as “Ordinary People,” the “Lethal Weapon” series and “A River Runs Through It,” will share his love of softball and talk about the movie industry.

“This fundraiser is appealing to not just softball families,” Herceg said.