Wilton softball is on the upswing again

Over the years, the fortunes of Wilton girls softball have seen peaks and valleys — years where the program thrived and others where the numbers declined.

Ten to 15 years ago, the total number of youth softball players in town was more than 200. The enrollment dropped to 120 by 2007, went up to 160 in 2010, and plummeted to under 100 a few years ago.

Now the number is at 119, with a large group in the younger age groups.

“We’re very happy to see renewed interest in the program. It’s good to see the numbers starting to come back,” said John Morello, a member of the Wilton Little League softball board of directors and also a coach for the Wilton Baseball and Softball Association. “We’re working hard to make sure this continues. We’re trying to get the word out there. We’d like to build the numbers.”

Serving as the bridgehead to the future this summer are the 10U Wilton Wild Things, the only travel team the WBSA is fielding this year.

The team features a large roster (18) of nine and 10-year old players, all of whom are from Wilton.

“We haven’t had an exclusively Wilton team in a few years,” said Morello.

He said it is the first time in three years that Wilton will have a team in the Fairfield County Fastpitch Softball League tournament.

Wilton in fact will host the FCFSL 10U tournament, which begin today, with games at Wilton High School, Comstock Center, and Middlebrook School.

The Wild Things play their first game in round-robin play tonight at 6 against the New Fairfield Rebels. The tournament continues through Sunday, with the championship games in both the 'A' and 'B' tournaments set for 1:15.

The WSBA was unable to put together a team in any age group last summer. Two years ago, the 10U girls played on a combined Wilton-Weston team.

The Wild Things are coached by Pam and Christa Nessel, both longtime coaches in the Wilton softball program and former Wilton High standouts.

The team features players who were part of the WLL 10U all-star team that was runner-up in the District 1 tournament last month.

“We have a young team. A lot of towns have separate 10U and 9U teams. We have a combined team. I’d say more girls are 9U than 10U,” Morello said.

With additional players, the district team continued into the summer season as the Wild Things.

“The girls have been playing a lot of softball, five-plus nights a week. They’ve been really into it and really excited and their level of focus has been really great. They’re learning the game and they are seeing themselves improve,” said Pam Nessel, noting that getting girls hooked on softball at an early age is key to their development.

“If you can get them interested as 10-unders and give them the basics, they realize it’s a much more exciting game than it looks,” she said. “There’s levels to it. There’s the individual skills (catching, throwing, hitting) and then there’s the whole level of plays you can make, and analyzing your opponent.”

Making up the Wilton Things roster are the following players: Marin Burke, Anisa Burrows, Katherine Costanzo, Lauren Davis, Eva Filipponi, Amelia Fleming, Grace Guglielmo, Emma Kelly, Katie Kelly, Anna Morello, Ella Noonan, Kate Rusin, Avery Samai, Avery Schestag, Lauren Sanfilippo, Abby Schwartz, Allie Schwartz, Abby Seeberger and Ally van Heyst.

This year, WLL had 48 girls in the AAA Division (ages 9-10) spring league, which was the highest number in many years, said Morello. The number of AAA teams has grown from one three years ago to four this past spring.

“It’s a positive sign for Wilton softball,” Morello noted. “This is the age group where the girls can start to develop good skills. It’s important to have a program where they can learn and have fun and start to expand their softball skills. It helps us to build a good program.”

Nessel said that numbers in softball had been declining in recent years around the regional, but “this year it seems to be on the upswing.”

The next step is to keep girls playing and expand the number of summer teams, and have girls playing together all the way through high school.

“That’s the hope,” said Nessel.

“The best high school programs are usually in towns that have a continual travel program and keep girls together,” said Morello.

He said that, historically, Wilton has been able to field a 10U team but then saw the numbers drop off in older age groups, with Wilton players going to nearby programs in Ridgefield, Stamford or Redding-Easton.

At one point, there was a combined Wilton-Westport team at the 12U level, and a combined Wilton/Stamford team at the 16U level that was the FCFSL title in 2008.

In 2010, the Wild Things, under the guidance of the Nessel sisters, just missed making the 10U FCFSL title game.

In 2013, the 12U Wilton Blue Crush won the FCFSL ‘B’ tournament. Most of those players are now rising sophomores at WHS, and five of them played on the WHS varsity team this past spring.

Many of the girls in the high school program have at some point been coached by the Nessels, who have been part of girls softball since they were growing up.

Pam, who graduated WHS in 2002, said there was no summer travel teams beyond the Little League district tourney when she was playing at the youth level.

“I remember when I was a little leaguer many years ago. We never had to go outside our town to play. We have four or five Little League teams (in Wilton).”

Christa didn’t get her first taste of summer softball until seventh or eighth grade, when Wilton formed a travel team.The FCFSL formed in 2003, after her freshman year at WHS. In those early years, Wilton often fielded teams in all four age groups — 10U, 12U, 14U and 16U.

The Nessel girls began coaching WBSA teams in the summer of 2007, working with 10U and 12U teams because “that’s where the greatest need is,” said Pam.

“Pam and Christa are wonderful coaches. Their contributions to softball and the town can’t be overstated,” Morello said.

Both the WLL and WBSA have made efforts to give girls who want to play softball more options — providing opportunities for more competitive softball if they so choose, but also keeping the door open for those who play other sports or are just learning the game.

The overall goal is “to give girls in Wilton who want to play softball an opportunity to play softball, either recreationally or a little more competitively,” said Nessel.

“Different players develop at different times,” said Morello. “We give the girls time to figure out what they want to do. I’d like to see the kids get an opportunity to explore as much as possible. We want to create a program that gets as many girls possible out there playing.”

Morello has brought back the fall softball program in recent years for any players who don’t have a fall sport, while the Nessels started giving winter clinics that have been so popular that girls have had to be split into two age groups.

“It was really exciting to see that,” said Christa Nessel.

Another positive sign is the number of younger players. In addition to the 10U team, Wilton put a 9U team in a friendship tournament in Westport this summer, and had 8U and 7U teams play friendly games, “something we haven’t been able to have in several years,” said Pam Nessel.

For members of the Wild Things, their first season of travel softball has been encouraging, particularly in how far girls have come in terms of skills and learning the mental aspect of the game.

“There’s a skill set that’s required that’s not easy to pick up,” said Morello. “They really learn. It’s a nice level. They’re learning that all nine players on the field have to go somewhere on a play, and the players on the bench are learning they should be studying the pitcher or studying the hitters. They’ve learning it is truly a team sport.”

That may not have translated into many wins this summer, said Morello, but it does lay the foundation for future success.

“What’s important is they’re playing better and better quality softball. They’re playing tough competition. Even those games they’re losing they’re keeping their heads up and learning skills.”

The hope is that more girls will try the sport at an earlier age, and more will choose to continue playing into high school and beyond.

“Softball is a really great grassroots sports,” said Pam Nessel. “Once you play it and see what it’s all about, you get the bug.”