TAUNTON — As you drive down the dirt road past the warehouses and the garage doors lined up in rows, you may not expect to end up at a girls’ softball practice.
But after driving through a large chain gate, parking under a massive overhang, and entering one of the many cement buildings, you’ll find the Mass Drifters 18-U Gold softball team in full practice mode, despite the intense 90-plus-degree heat. The team has transformed a run-down vacant warehouse into a softball sanctuary.
There's a large space for the infielders and outfielders to practice drills, and a pitching tunnel for pitchers and catchers, complete with overhead lighting. There are also five hitting tunnels equipped with pitching machines. The girls take advantage of all these resources, switching from the field drills to the tunnels, under the direction of the team’s manager and coach, Carol Savino , who is also the head softball coach at Norwood High School.
The Drifters, who had just returned from a three-day tournament in Allentown, Pa., were preparing for a tourney this weekend in New Castle, Del. The majority of the players made the drive with their parents; many left Wednesday.
On most nights, practices are held outside in Lakeville. But because of the threat of Eastern equine encephalitis, a virus spread by mosquitoes, Savino made the decision to keep her players inside Tuesday night.
Numerous trophies are on display from the organization's 25-year history. However, the 18-U Gold team is not focused on trophies, but in developing playing skills and showcasing the players to college recruiters. Members of last year’s 48-10-3 squad landed at American International, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Southern New Hampshire, Endicott, and C.W. Post.
“It’s tournaments where there are college coaches watching you play, and what you’re hoping is to get recruited, or for somebody, if you’re doing your job, if you’re e-mailing coaches, you give them your schedule so they can come watch you,” said Savino.
Devan Rabidou , a rising senior at Marian High in Framingham, is used to the attention; she is in her sixth season with the Drifters.
“The first time you know that there’s a coach there specifically to watch you and other girls, it’s nerve-racking at first, but once you get used to them being there and you just tell yourself to play your game, it gets easier and you just feel more confident,” said Rabidou, a catcher from Ashland.
The pressure of being observed by college coaches is not the only obstacle challenging the girls’ ability to focus on the game.
At a tournament in Virginia Beach, Va., on July 7, the Drifters had three games in which the temperature on the field approached 120 degrees, but they played on.
"We won all [three games] that day," said Katie Casey , a pitcher entering her senior season at Braintree High.
It’s no surprise that the players succeed on the diamond, because many train or work out year-round while also playing other sports.
The Drifters also play in a winter league that schedules Sunday games. Casey, who also plays basketball, makes time for both.
“You’re practicing for six days for your school team for the other sport, and every Sunday you have to play softball and I have to do pitching lessons too, so I don’t get a day off all winter,” said Casey.
While other teenage girls may be hanging out with their friends on the beach, the players on the Drifters squad and other showcase programs in the region, such as the Rhode Island Thunder, are practicing and preparing to pack up and head off on another road trip.
“At first, adapting is very difficult and you feel like you don't know what to do, but once you get used to it, you do learn to juggle your social life and softball," said shortstop Madi Shaw , a rising junior at Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High.
With a 60-game schedule, the Drifters will continue playing tournaments until Aug. 12.
Fortunately, they’ll get a small break from traveling: the last three tournaments will be held in the Bay State. After their trek to Delaware, they will head to Lowell next weekend, followed by a tourney Aug. 3-5 in Plainville, and another one Aug. 10-12 in Leominster.
Savino, who founded the organization along with Janice Tilley in 1987, gives her players credit for pushing themselves to the limit for the team and for their future.
“The bottom line is, they’re the ones that have traveled and they’re the ones that are working at their game year-round,” she said.
“It isn’t just about high school for them. It’s a love of the game to play at the next level, at the collegiate level, and that’s so important,” said Savino. “You’ve got to play in the summer if you want to play college ball as far as I’m concerned, because you never stop playing.’’