There have been collegiate summer baseball leagues from the coast of California to Cape Cod for decades.
Until last year, however, finding competitive softball has been nearly impossible for collegiate players over the summer months.
That’s something the Florida Gulf Coast League (FGCL) set out to change.
The FGCL was initially a summer collegiate baseball league based in Sarasota, but expanded into softball last year — claiming to be “the first pioneer and premier softball organization,” according to its website.
“I’m glad they’re starting it now because all of these college softball players can’t play travel ball anymore because we’re too old,” former Lemon Bay and current FIU softball player Bailey Grossenbacher said of the FGCL. “We needed this league to keep playing over the summer.
“(Without this league) I’d just be working out by myself.”
Grossenbacher heard about the FGCL from former FIU head coach Chris Steiner-Wilcoxson, and the Englewood native didn’t hesitate to join a league so close to home.
After beginning with eight teams during the coronavirus pandemic last summer, the FGCL grew to 10 teams this summer and plans on expanding to 12 in 2022, executive director Ryan Moore said.
The cost of play varies from team-to-team, but is typically about $1,900 — including fields to play on, training centers and housing.
“If players want to keep developing or earn a better scholarship, or maybe they have aspirations of being a college coach some day, these are doors that this type of opportunity can open,” Moore said.
“We already had a collegiate baseball league with 13 teams, so we had the model for it. And we just figured, ‘Why can’t the girls play, too?’”
Teams played regular season games for roughly a month straight — with one day off a week, largely dependent on when it rained — leading up to a two-week playoff for the championship.
Though Grossenbacher’s Aquanauts team had a strong regular season, they were eliminated in a last-inning comeback by the Phins — a team that made it to Tuesday’s championship game.
Grossenbacher was an everyday starter for the Aquanauts after starting 15 of 40 games for the Panthers this spring where she hit .236 with one home run.
When she wasn’t starting at FIU, Grossenbacher was often inserted into the game as a late-inning pinch hitter.
“It’s hard to work your way up to find playing time as a freshman in college,” said Grossenbacher, who hit .340 with two home runs and five steals over 60 plate appearances with the Aquanauts this summer. “Here, you get unlimited playing time and you’re here to have fun. It gives you the reps you need to get better that you might not get at school.
“Now I’ll face these pitchers this upcoming year and I’ll know what they pitch and how it will be, instead of just going up to bat not knowing what’s gonna happen.”
Grossenbacher said she and all of her Aquanauts teammates are planning to play in the FGCL again next summer while also trying to bring more college teammates along for the experience.
Along with adding two more teams, Moore said the FGCL plans on creating a four-team developmental league for recently graduated high school seniors and non-Division-I players.
“The biggest thing is introducing it to the world of softball because this has never been done before,” Moore said. “I think that’s been the challenge — letting the college coaches and players know that we exist.
“It’s been about getting the word out that this actually exists. There actually is a league for the girls to play in now, not just the guys.”