In terms of gaining widespread exposure, Iowa high school softball players are working from behind in the count.
While many of the nation's top softball preps were vying for the attention of college coaches in elite summer tournaments across the country, Mariah Fritz and Ashley Allen were fielding grounders in Le Grand, running the bases in State Center and wrapping up their sophomore seasons in Fort Dodge.
Like their Iowa counterparts, the East Marshall duo's chances to enhance their resume on the summer circuit is limited by the overlap of their high school season - a problem not shared by most of their peers around the country.
East Marshall High School juniors Mariah Fritz, left, and Ashley Allen pose for a photograph at the entryway to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Fla., during their recent trip for a softball tournament.
Though those fortunes turned when I-Club Black 18-Under coach Greg Dickel offered each of them a spot on his 14-player roster for one of the premier tournaments in the United States.
In the eyes of Fritz and Allen - it was the perfect pitch.
Following a successful season on Dickel's I-Club 16-U Red team, the juniors joined 12 more of the state's finest to represent Iowa at the Sun Classic Fall Showcase at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. Oct. 30-Nov. 3.
"A lot of kids from Iowa don't get those opportunities very often, if at all, given the fact that we play summer softball," said Dickel, the state director of Iowa Premier Girls Fastpitch in Des Moines.
"A lot of the major tournaments with that type of prestige are played during the summer. We had an opportunity to play in this one and I wanted to take advantage of it and give as many kids as I could in my program the experience."
Fritz and Allen helped the squad post a 5-2 record, joining the likes of all-state first-team selections Kendyl Lindaman (Ankeny), Mallory Killian (Fort Dodge) and Kenzie Ihle (Ballard), while representing the first Iowa team to play in the Classic's six-year history. The Mustangs' strong play earned them invites to play on a national team with Dickel's club after their junior season wraps up next summer.
Fritz, a Class 3A second-team selection at pitcher, and Allen - a Times-Republican All-Area infielder - earned their keep not only with their play on the 16-U team but also by filling in well on Dickel's 18-Gold squad.
"Talent-wise they're at that level, they're ready," said Dickel.
Though it was more than talent that got the Le Grand pair on the Orlando-bound team. Both players dedicated hours and hours to refine their games well past the confines of the high school season.
After the Mustangs' run to the state tournament concluded in late July, the duo picked things up with their club team toward the end of August, spending weekends on the road playing six games at a time. The eight-week season took the team to tournaments around the Midwest including Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis and Minneapolis as Fritz and Allen completed their homework assignments on the road. Sharing time outside of practice in pitching-and-catching sessions during the week, the duo traded thoughts on American Heritage, Chemistry and College Algebra on the weekend, a few of the courses the two have in common this fall.
The additional reps, game experience and time management, prepared the juniors for their biggest stage yet as the margin for error narrowed considerably in Florida.
"The athletes are really top quality and all of them could go to D-I schools," said Fritz. "The level of play is so much faster and you always have to be thinking of the next play. You have to be really focused and know the game because one error or one mistake can lose the game or lead to multiple runs."
The Iowa squad faced off against foes from Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, Florida, Virginia and Connecticut as the field featured top-level teams from across the country.
Dickel's daily intensity and pursuit of excellence carried over to his club.
"Greg's the hardest coach I've ever had and the pressure is huge," said Allen of her club coach, who also serves as the hitting instructor for both Mustangs.
"He's hard on you but it made me way better than I ever could have been just playing high school. He gives you the opportunity to go so much further in the sport."
While that pressure was present in each game, the morning and night schedule of the contests allowed for some lighter moments in between. Enjoying some down time at their resort, the girls also savored some team-bonding time at the beach, Disney World and Universal Studios.
The breaks were well-deserved as the Iowa team earned a return invite to the Classic with Fritz and Allen each making some lasting impressions in the club's solid showing.
"Mariah is one of our younger up-and-coming stars in our program," said Dickel of the pitcher who threw in "portions of 4-5 games."
"She held her own and definitely showed me that she can throw at the top level. She'll be pushing for an 18-U Gold position next year with our program."
Allen's?versatility impressed her head coach and allowed him to use the junior behind the plate, at shortstop and in the outfield, a spot she'd barely played before getting her feet wet in practices leading up to the Classic.
"Ashley is a very good athlete and a big, physical, athletic kid who has the skill set that allows her to (play multiple positions)," said Dickel, who also praised the junior's play with the bat, including a home run in the team's last game.
"She'd never actually played outfield much before this trip. ... If she gives that a little more thought, she'll find out that her skill set actually fits the outfield very well."
Both players have shown Dickel - and many of the other coaches in attendance - they can play at the next level, though he's glad to have their services on his club team for now.
Fritz and Allen will have some time away from the diamond, though they'll continue to hone their skills when time allows during basketball season, while returning to pitching-and-catching sessions in January.
Both came away from the Florida trip with an improved resume and an even stronger passion to pursue softball at the collegiate level, not to mention a new set of friends.
"The best part is meeting new people and playing with them," said Fritz. "You come together as a team and bond because you all love softball the same."
The experience also allowed for some lessons that stretch beyond the baselines.
"When you get to a higher level it's going to be challenging, you're not always going to be at the same level," said Allen. "It kind of brings a new look at life and how not everything is always going to go the way you want it."
That reality will set in at some point for nearly every prep that takes the field, though the opportunity afforded to the East Marshall juniors puts them in rare company in Iowa.
And the feeling that now, they're ahead in the count.