AVON — With perennial state championship-caliber high school programs an easy drive from Sprenger Stadium, Lake Erie Crushers owner Tom Kramig thought bringing the elite professional teams of the sport to the area was a natural fit.
The Cleveland Comets, formerly the Akron Racers, will play six National Pro Fastpitch regular-season games at the home of the Crushers starting tonight when they kick off a three-game series with the Chicago Bandits.
The Bandits will be in town tonight, Saturday and Sunday, followed by a three-game set with the USSSA Pride on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Softball is so hot on the west side,” Kramig said. “A year ago we honored the Elyria team that won a state title. This year it was Keystone. It seemed like there was a natural audience here on the west side of town that, maybe, wouldn’t make the drive to Akron but would come here to watch them play.”
The Comets feature a number of professional players from China, as well as college All-American players from the United States, including third baseman Jenna Lilley.
That name may be familiar to Elyria fans. Lilley led North Canton Hoover to four straight Division I state titles, beating the Pioneers twice along the way. In 2011, Hoover and the Vikings downed Elyria in the state semifinals and in 2013 they beat Elyria in the state final.
Lilley starred at the University of Oregon and played for Team USA.
Jade Rhodes, who played first base at Auburn, is looking forward to the six games in Avon.
“It’s great. It’s also a job for us for the summer and that’s an amazing opportunity for us,” said Rhodes, whose father, Arthur Rhodes, played for nine teams, including the Indians, in a 20-year major league baseball career as a relief pitcher. “Not every college athlete can say they played professionally. I graduated in 2016 so this is my third year in the league.
“For players coming straight out of college it’s definitely a transition for them. It’s not like college ball. It’s a great thing, after college, to try this out. Every college athlete should have the opportunity to come play pro ball.”
The Comets feature 14 Chinese players. Second baseman Xie Yue is happy to have the opportunity to play professionally in America.
“It’s just like a dream come true,” she said. “I have enjoyed every minute here and I think my future will be really bright here.
“There are a lot of differences between playing here and playing in China. Here, the players have more freedom to manage themselves. In China, the coaches have to manage the players. It’s a lot better here than it is in China.”
Bridging that gap between the international game and the game played in the United States has taken time, but Comets pitching coach Amanda Locke said she has enjoyed watching the individual players come together as a team.
“They got to train together earlier in preseason and really got to learn each other on and off the field,” Locke said. “They’ve had a lot of time to work together and are continuing to create communication to bridge that gap.
“It’s a different pace, for sure, but it’s been really cool to watch everyone work together to integrate both styles of play and moving forward to create our own identity as a team.”
Rhodes said the transition took some time, but thinks the Chinese players have adapted well.
“The pace they play and the pace we play is a little different,” she said. “They have a little slower pace and it’s great they get to come watch how we play. The pace was a little difficult for them to pick up at first, but they learned very quickly.”
The Sprenger Stadium playing field will be modified for the Comets games. The baseball pitching mound will be removed and a temporary fence will be put up just beyond the infield.
“I think it’s huge for the organization to get in front of the fans in Ohio and let them know what our team is about,” Locke said. “This is a great facility and a great organization. We’re really excited to be here.
“We know there’s a lot of history and a lot of tradition in this area. Just to be able to come in and bring our girls to experience them and be a part of something so cool, we’re really excited about it.”