International softball legend Jennie Finch returned last weekend to Diamond Nation for the first time in two years and it was difficult to see who was happier, the girls on the 75 competing teams or Jennie herself.
“It was so great to be back at Diamond Nation,” said Finch, the 2004 Olympic softball gold medalist, star pitcher and prodigious hitter. “It was so great to see the Diamond Nation family, the Finch’s Aces families and to just be back in that great softball environment.”
The 75-team Finch’s Aces Fall Invitational was a rousing success as Finch conducted her small groups clinic on Friday night then joined the girls as a coach and inspirational leader during a busy tournament day on Saturday.
Finch routinely makes three visits a year to Diamond Nation and each visit she is greeted with amazing enthusiasm as Jennie returns the love three-fold. But the COVID-19 pandemic derailed Finch’s visits the past two years until the easing of travel restrictions enabled the Louisiana resident to return to one of her favorite venues in the nation.
Finch arrived on Friday to find a very different Diamond Nation from two years ago. The facility has added a new field, Field 7, new batting cages, new scoreboards, a new restroom facility at the far end of the complex and assorted improvements to the bullpens on each field.
“Field 7 is beautiful,” said Finch, who saw Diamond Nation’s newest field converted into two softball diamonds. “It’s a state of the art field, truly big league. I can’t think of a nicer baseball and softball facility I’ve been to in the country for youth tournaments.
“I’m so excited about the new cages and the warm-up area. It’s always such a struggle for a team going into a tournament, to have quality warm up areas and cages. So to be able to provide that for the teams is just tremendous.”
Finch guided her Arizona Wildcats to the National Championship in 2001 and her team reached the national final in 2002 before losing to California. Jennie set several NCAA records along the way in a remarkable career that also set unattainable standards for a two-way superstar. The National Softball Hall of Famer went 119-16 with a 1.08 ERA in her four years at Arizona. And she batted .301 with 231 hits, including 50 HRs and drove in 195 runs in four incredible collegiate seasons at the plate.
She then posted a staggering 38-2 record and a 0.39 ERA in five years of international play with the U.S. National Softball Team. Jennie moved on to play parts of five seasons for the Chicago Bandits in the National Pro Fastpitch league where she went 35-8 with a 1.11 ERA.
Finch’s personal athletic success is only matched by the personal and athletic inspiration she provides young players.
“It’s a big part of it to inspire and encourage and see the growth of the game in the Northeast,” says Finch. “We see it through the Finch’s Aces program and well beyond, including in all the great teams we’ve been able to host at Diamond Nation. It’s great that we’ve gotten to see these girls compete in a first class facility.”
Finch has gotten to know the individual Finch’s Aces players over the years and her two years away from Diamond Nation proved very difficult.
“It was a great weekend all around,” she said, “but It was crazy looking at the growth and maturity of our girls. I kept thinking where are those little girls I remember. They are young women now. It made me sad, I’m not going to lie, having not seen them in a couple years.”
Time crunches quickly in athletics and life and Jennie can attest to that. Seeing the next generations of her Aces taking the next step does fill the heart.
“It was great to see the progress the Aces have made,” said Finch. “I’m so proud of how hard they’ve worked. And it is great to see the girls walking in the fruit of their labor. It was pretty exciting stuff. I can’t wait to come back and see more of them.”
It’s difficult to describe the environment of a Jennie Finch visit and her Invitational tournaments, other than to say it is a happening, a happening the softball community has embraced, has missed and for which it highly anticipates many more.
“I love to see the investment made in these girls, these teams, these coaches and our sport,” says Jennie. “Diamond Nation is just an incredible place to play. It’s first class, such a gold medal facility for teams to come in and play the game that they love.”
Jennie is from California, lives in Louisiana and loves her softball and Cajun food. But the Northeast offers its own brand of softball and fine delicacies that you just can’t get everywhere in the country.
“The fields, the environment. You could just feel the love for softball in the air at Diamond Nation,” says Jennie. “It’s always great to be back in Flemington. And, of course, to get some eggplant parm. It’s so good.”