(This story also appears in the latest edition of Diamond Nation Magazine, which celebrates the 10th Anniversary of Diamond Nation).
Ami Iwicki was a college underclassman, playing softball for Wagner College on Staten Island, when she began working at Jack Cust Baseball Academy in 2005. The two-time All-State Softball player from Hunterdon Central was adding her expertise, at that time, during winter softball training at the Healthquest Sports Dome.
Today, Iwicki is Diamond Nation’s graphic designer, but after many years as the company’s Director of Softball Operations, she has unique insight into the earliest development of the company’s softball program.
“We had one team, the 14U team,” said Iwicki, who was simply working to build a softball program with Keith Dilgard, now Diamond Nation’s President and CEO. “It was just Keith and me and before we knew it, it exploded. The Dome was always packed. By our second year, we had three softball teams, 12U, 14U and 18U.”
A frequently packed Dome would trigger expansion thoughts by the Cust family as its baseball and softball operations had quickly outgrown the JCBA property. Once plans for Diamond Nation hatched, it wasn’t long before the Custs reached out for the nation’s most revered softball player, Jennie Finch.
Finch and Jack Cust, Jr. would team up with the Jennie Finch Softball Academy and the Jack Cust Baseball Academy the centerpieces of Diamond Nation, which opened on June 12, 2009.
“We are trying to help kids in the northeast get better at softball and baseball,” said Jack Cust, Sr. as he toured the new Diamond Nation facility in 2009 with Finch and Jack Cust, Jr. “We are trying to level the playing field and give the kids the ultimate amount of playing time outside, and inside with our Dome.”
Finch, a three-time All-American pitcher and first baseman at Arizona during her college days, gained national and international fame when she led Team U.S.A. to a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics. Her 2008 Olympic team earned a silver medal. In December of 2009, Finch steered the inaugural Jennie Finch Extravaganza, an indoor clinic for young girls, at the Healthquest Sports Dome.
Finch, in one of her four visits annually to Diamond Nation, packs the house and brings with her some of her Olympic buddies, including two-time Olympic gold medalist Crystl Bustos.
“I always look forward to my trips to Diamond Nation, my softball home away from home,” said Finch. “It’s an honor to work with the young girls and share the game I love so much.”
A Finch visit gives the Diamond Nation and the JCBA complex a Disney World type of feel as girls and their families vie for Jennie’s attention. The beauty of it all is how Finch treats everyone like they are one big softball family.
“All I want is for each girl to be the best player and person she can be,” says Finch.
Finch and Iwicki were certainly on the same page as the Finch’s Aces program began sending girls to the next level, playing college ball and succeeding in the bigger game of life.
“There really is nothing better than seeing our kids succeed in college,” says Iwicki. “They get to play ball and have fun at it and get a great education. There are so many of our kids who’ve already gone through college and so many others in college now.”
McKayla Brady of Green Brook is a Finch’s Aces player who is giving back to the program as a coach. Brady played her high school ball at Watchung Hills in Warren, N.J. and went on to play four years at Susquehanna (Pa.) University.
“That’s amazing for us to see,” says Iwicki.
As Iwicki’s day-to-day responsibilities grew larger on the business end, Jackie Spina was hired in August of 2017 to take the reins as the Director of Softball Operations.
Spina, an outstanding player in her own right, came to Diamond Nation and the Finch’s Aces program with her dad, Tom Tarulli, a marketing professional. Spina, Tarulli and a larger cast of coaches have helped grow the Finch’s Aces program to six teams while improving the depth of talent in the organization.
“We have a great group of coaches who work hard with the girls to improve their skills and confidence,” said Spina, who starred first at Ridge High School in Basking Ridge, N.J., before putting forth an outstanding college career at DePaul. “We’ve seen steady improvement our first year and a half and look forward to the positive results that will naturally come as we train with specific goals in mind.”
Spina has returned to her high school alma mater to coach and is in her second season as the Red Devils’ head coach.
There is nothing like success to promote a program and Spina and Tarulli are delivering on that plan for the Aces.
The Finch’s Aces 18U Premier team, coached by Spina, went 8-2 and reached the championship game of the Triple Crown Sports Fireworks Tournament in Colorado in late June. The 14U Aces won the USSSA Winter Nationals championship at Diamond Nation last fall.
“The success of the Finch’s Aces program is going to rely on our ability to outwork everyone else,” said Tarulli. “We are building a culture of teamwork starting from the top of our administration and trickling down to our coaches and players.”
One of the highlights of the winter months at Diamond Nation is, of course, the Jennie Finch Extravaganza, which is suddenly a decade old but remains a fixture among the top instructional programs offered at Diamond Nation.
“I’ve always loved heading to Diamond Nation for the Extravaganza in December,” said Finch. “A perfect way to get in the holiday spirit is to share the game with the next generation.”
Bustos, perhaps women’s softball’s all-time greatest power hitter, is a frequent instructor at the Extravaganza. She was recently named to the National Softball Hall of Fame
“I’m excited, after witnessing the success of our tournaments and the success of the Aces teams, to see what the future holds for the entire organization,” says Tarulli. “The girls proved their hard work in the way they played. If our girls continue to put the work in and are holding themselves accountable, we will be successful on and off the field.”