It’s a long way from Elyria’s dusty Little League fields to the modern, manicured stadiums of the Southeastern Conference.
Few players are good enough to make the leap from sandlot softball to the SEC. And for those who are, major Division I college competition is as far as they can go.
Tess Sito became an exception when the former Elyria High, Cleveland State and University of Georgia star was drafted in April by the Akron Racers of the four-team National Pro Fastpitch.
Now at the height of her softball accomplishments, new images of Sito come into focus that go well beyond the usual levels of competition.
She was in the spotlight last week after the Racers’ home opener in Firestone Stadium. Akron’s game with Chicago was history and for nearly half an hour, Sito made her way around the ballpark, foul pole to foul pole, signing autographs for fans who crowded around the field.
She signed shirts and softballs and programs, and she posed for pictures with girls who hope one day to be like her.
Sito’s popularity will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed her over the years, and that includes Joey Arietta, the Racers’ owner and a pioneer in women’s professional softball.
“She’s such a good fit because she’s so versatile,” Arietta said. “We can say, ‘Tess, we need you to do this’ and she can do it. She’s so personable and she’s beautiful. She’s just a really, really solid young woman.”
The season is young, but Sito said that to this point, the move from college to the pros has not been difficult.
“The transition is not that great because in the SEC everybody is good and you come here and everybody is great,” she said following her home opener. “It was great to go to Georgia and then come here because of the (relatively easy) transition.”
Sito didn’t play in the opener of the Racers’ four-game series with the Chicago Bandits. But she started at second base the following night and hit a three-run homer in her first at-bat.
If you were in the stadium, you got to see it. But the game was not televised. Both games of the Racers-Bandits day-night doubleheader Saturday were carried live by ESPN2.
“I think she has a great future in the professional league,” Arietta said of Sito’s potential. “I’ve watched her for a long time, when she was in high school and coming up through the Little League program, so I was well aware of her ability.”
Arietta saw Sito play in three straight high school state semifinals and championship games from 2007-09 at Firestone Stadium. That was after Sito and her Elyria teammates won a Little League regional title on the same field in 2006.
“The thing that really struck me about her was her versatility,” Arietta said. “She can play a number of positions defensively. She’s like a .975 (fielding average) defensive player, so she really knows how to use a glove.
“You look at all those factors, and on a 20-player roster, you need versatile players. If we had to put her in the outfield, she could and she would. She is quite an athlete. When I was watching her grow up, her skill sets were very polished early on. Even in Little League when I was watching her, you could see that her skill set was moving along very rapidly.
“That translated into the great high school career she had. Then she goes to Cleveland State and does very well, and goes to Georgia and competes in what in my opinion is the best offensive conference in the country. Now her defensive skill is that much more developed.”
Sito said it was a thrill to look up into Firestone’s familiar grandstand and see familiar faces.
“It’s really cool, after winning state here and playing here,” she said. “It was awesome to see my family and you guys here, and when I say family, not just my mom and dad, but aunts, uncles and cousins. It’s really fun and hopefully I’ll have some of my old teammates from Cleveland State and Elyria and some of my best friends come to my games.”
Her parents, Jack and Jane Sito, are usually in the crowd, home or away at whatever level she’s playing. And her mother was one of her early coaches.
“She started playing Little League when she was about 9 or 10 and actually Jane started coaching her,” Jack Sito said. “That was impressive because my wife was not the biggest softball coach around. But somehow she took Tess and a bunch of other kids and won the city tournament.
“I knew right then that she was going to be all right. I had no idea how good she was going to be. When she walked out on the field as a professional, unbelievable. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe I was watching it. That was a great feeling. Incredible. All her hard work paid off.”
In case you were wondering, women professional softball players don’t command million-dollar signing bonuses and seven- and eight-digit annual salaries. Arietta said each of the four NPF teams has $150,000 per season to spend on salaries for 20 players.
“Divide that 20 ways and you get a pretty good idea of what these young women earn,” she said. “Of course, some of our more veteran players will make a little more than some of the younger ones, and the pitchers generally make more than the others.”
When they’re at home, the Racers are lodged in townhouses not far from the stadium, four players to a house.
Still, it’s been an amazing journey. Of course, Sito’s mom wasn’t sure what to expect of Tess as a young player, but there was something about her that suggested success.
“When she walked out onto the field, she had the look,” Jane Sito said. “She had the ponytail and she had the visor and for me, I think when you’re that little, they get on a team and they all have the same outfit on and they all pick up the same mannerisms.
“I remember her playing with her cousin Kristin (also a former EHS softball star who was a starter at Niagara University),” she said. “They were small and it was really neat to see them (progress in softball). When we saw her walk out on the field for the first time in a Racers uniform, I probably cried.”
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.