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Chillout attract 24 teams from 10 states to the River City
by Kim West
for Decatur Parks and Recreation
DECATUR – Five hundred players and coaches, along with a bevy of friends, family and fans, descended on Wilson Morgan Park on Feb. 17-18 for the seventh edition of the Charger Chillout softball tournament.
The Chillout, which began in 2006 and is co-hosted by the University of Alabama-Huntsville and the City of Decatur, has grown into a tournament with 24 teams from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan and Florida.
The tournament, known regionally and nationally as one of the most competitive invitational tournaments in the country, featured three of the top 11 teams in Division II, including No. 2 University of Alabama-Huntsville, No. 3 University of North Georgia and No. 11 Shorter University.
North Georgia came into last year’s tournament ranked No. 1, but UAH upset the Saints and finished 2011 as the runners-up to the University of California-San Diego in the College World Series in Salem, W.V.
The Chargers and Saints were set for a Top 5 rematch on the last day of the tournament, but the last round of games were cancelled due to the rain that pummeled Decatur last Sunday.
Across the board, players and coaches cited the competition level of the tournament as the top draw for coming to the River City, but they also complimented the hospitality they received at the city’s hotels and eateries.
“This is such a good tournament with a high level of competition,” said Mike Davenport, head coach at North Georgia for the past 11 years. “This will prepare us for our conference play (in the Peach Belt Conference) in March because we have the opportunity to play some of the best teams in the country, and the goal is the same for us every year – working towards the national championship.
“Wilson Morgan is a special place to us because we came here for the national tournament when we were an NAIA program, and we have a lot of good memories here.”
UNG wields two top pitchers in All-American senior Jessica Coan and junior Krysten Connelly, and the Saints have been a Division II member for seven years. This marks the fifth straight year they have participated in the Chillout.
“The city has always been inviting, and it’s been welcoming when we’ve gone into the restaurants and hotels here,” said Davenport, whose team typically stays at the Courtyard Marriott. “We always hit up Logan’s because it’s close to our hotel, and it’s been a good place for us.”
UAH, which is the only team in the tournament that didn’t have to take a long bus trip or plane ride, has similar expectations for the 2012 season. The Chargers, which entered the tournament 4-0 and won all four of its Chillout games against Kentucky Wesleyan, Bellarmine, Palm Beach Atlantic and Southern Indiana, have set their sights on a return trip to the CWS in Louisville, Ky., and they are using the tourney as a stepping stone to the rest of the season.
“This tournament has some of the most competitive, if not the best, teams in Division II,” said Krystal Johnson, UAH assistant coach and a senior on last year’s squad. “As a player, I liked knowing at the beginning of the season where we were as a team because where you start and where you finish is totally different.
The Chargers’ strengths rest in their dangerous lineup, including All-American sophomore catcher/outfielder Mary Kelley, senior outfielder Kelli Long and junior shortstop Kathryn Whitlock, and the pitching tandem of Whitney Toller and Whitney Gilbert.
“Kat is definitely our craziest personality because she is hilarious, and one of our leaders is definitely Kelli because she is someone the other players can look up to on and off the field,” Johnson said. “We don’t have a No. 1 and No. 2 pitcher because we have two top pitchers, and the starter depends on the team we’re playing and who’s the best fit.
“Toller is very smooth and confident, and she has this presence on the mound – she’s captivating. We have so much confidence in her because she plays really well to only be a sophomore, and she carried us to the national tournament last year.”
Johnson said the team doesn’t worry about national rankings and the hype that surrounds a program that has finished second nationally in two of the last three seasons.
“Last year definitely left a bitter taste, but it’s not that we have something to prove,” said Johnson, decked out in a black-and-blue Charger uniform and styling a 2011 silver CWS ring encrusted with diamonds and blue enamel. “We just want to win it all, and the rankings don’t mean anything to us. We just have to perform every game and back up all the talk.”
Delta State, one of four Gulf South Conference teams in the Chillout, chartered a bus for the 4 1/2-hour trip and also stayed at the Marriott.
“This is a really good tournament with good competition,” said DSU head coach Casey Bourgoyne-Charles, who has brought her team to Decatur for the past four years. “It prepares us for our GSC games, and it’s always fun to play teams you don’t see usually.”
The Statesmen came into the tourney with red-hot bats through their first eight games. “Our team has been doing a good job hitting the ball, and we scored 35 runs in the Arkansas tournament last weekend,” Bourgoyne-Charles said. “Division II is a hitting level of play, and you have to be able to outscore the other team – you can’t just rely on pitching to win. You have to hit and score runs at this level to win.” She said the team doesn’t have much spare time due to the tournament schedule, but the players and coaches did have the opportunity to sample the local barbecue and seafood.
“There’s not really a lot of free time to watch the other teams because of the schedule – we just have time to play, eat and sleep,” Bourgoyne-Charles said. “We eat pretty good down here. We usually have sandwiches for lunch, but I sent the team and assistant coaches to Big Bob Gibson’s (Friday) night, and I went to Wentzel’s (Oyster House).”
Maryville University took an eight-hour bus trip from St. Louis for its third appearance in the Chillout. The Tritons took advantage of the more temperate weather since they had been restricted to playing indoors because of the Missouri winter weather.
“We come here for the competition,” said Maryville head coach Melissa Hurley, whose team stayed at the Microtel and sampled Kyoto Japanese Restaurant on Friday night. “For us, we’re focusing on doing the simple things on dirt because we’ve only had three practices outside, and we’ve been practicing in the gym.”
Wayne State from Detroit had the longest commute from the north, while Truman State of Missouri is located the farthest west and Barry University from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., had the farthest to travel from the south and the east. “We flew into Huntsville, but it would’ve taken us 13 to 14 hours by bus,” said Natalia Ojeda, a junior shortstop for the Buccaneers. “We’ve already played in tournaments at Palm Beach, Eckerd and Rollins this season.
“This is our third year at the Chillout, and I like that there’s a lot of teams from all over the U.S.”
The 24-team field included Florida Institute of Technology, Barry University, Rollins College and Palm Beach Atlantic University from Florida; the University of North Alabama, University of West Alabama and University of Alabama-Huntsville of Alabama; Northern Kentucky University, Kentucky Wesleyan College and Bellarmine University from Kentucky; Delta State University from Mississippi; the University of Southern Indiana and the University of Indianapolis from Indiana; Ohio Dominican University from Ohio; the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Maryville University and Truman State University from Missouri; Georgia College & State University, University of North Georgia, University of West Georgia and Augusta State University from Georgia; Lander University and Quincy College from Illinois; and Wayne State University of Michigan.
By the numbers
Did you know?
Logan’s Roadhouse in headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., and was founded in Lexington, Ky., with 206 locations in 23 states, including Decatur.
Six of Wayne State University’s 17 players are from the Canadian province of Ontario.
Kentucky Wesleyan College (13) and Lander University (14) have the smallest rosters in the Chillout, while six of the 24 teams have at least 20 players. UAH leads all teams with 25 players.
The school mascots included the Jaguars, Lions, Tigers, Bobcats, Bearcats, and Panthers (three teams); Buccaneers, Tritons, Statesmen, Norse, Warriors, Chargers, Knights and Saints (two teams); Bulldogs, Greyhounds and Wolves; Screaming Eagles and Hawks; the Sailfish and the Tars.