As they approach the conclusion of their sixth season, members of the Metro Nashville Softball Association (MNSA) celebrate recent successes and set their sights towards the future.
The organization's efforts have borne fruit: MNSA will send four of their 16 teams to the Gay Softball World Series (GSWS) later this month. In the C Division, the Force and the Fury will compete for the championship. The Pink Panthers and the Sting are participants in the D division.
Chicago is the host city for the 35th annual edition of the event from Monday, Aug. 29 - Saturday, Sept. 3. The tournament, which is the largest annual LGBT sporting event, will welcome more than 170 participating teams. Over 4,000 athletes and fans are expected to attend the week-long tournament.
The strong showing by MNSA this year owes a great deal to the camaraderie among squad members. Nashville Force pitcher Shannon Hill, an MNSA player since the league's inception in 2006, appreciates the sport's social aspect as much as the athletic challenge.
"It's like a big family," he says. "It's all about the friendships. We've very competitive and we like to win, but it's not all about that."
For members of the GLBT community who have never explored team sports, the MNSA offers a supportive environment regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation. Three different team divisions are designed to accommodate a variety of skill levels.
"My whole goal going into it was to have fun and to learn, but the better I became, the more competitive I got," says first-year Nashville Force player Brian O'Connor. " I've gotten a lot of self-confidence out of playing. You're not worried about failing."
"(The league) gives people a chance to be an athlete without being judged," says Kevin Riddle, next season's MNSA commissioner. "This is somewhere you can come regardless of your talent level and we'll find a place for you."
The Gay Softball World Series is simply a culmination of a season's worth of fly balls and base hits. The league organizes games each Sunday from April-August at West Park, and most teams practice at least once a week to sharpen their skills.
"It's a big commitment to play every Sunday," O'Connor says. "But 25 years from now, when people ask me how I spent my Sundays, I can look back and say that I made these amazing connections and I will have that memory."
As Riddle assumes his new role, he relishes the opportunity to expand the league and encourage other people to participate as players or volunteers.
"I want to be able to involve the whole community," he says. "There are people that still don't know about us. I feel like there's been a really good foundation and I want to just make certain enhancements to it."
Participants and fans can follow the tournament live on our website at http://chicagoseries2011.com or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/GSWS2011 or Twitter @series2011.