A league of their own

On a steamy summer night on a dirt and grass field, an American Legion-sponsored team concludes its warmups after the player introductions, national anthem and other pre-game festivities.

The pitcher squeezes the resin bag, tosses it aside, receives the sign from the catcher and winds up. The scene will continue throughout the summer.

Pitch after pitch. Inning after inning. Game after game.

What’s notable about these players, these teams and this league is they are all part of the quickly growing American Legion Lady Fastpitch Softball League in the Department of North Carolina.

State director and co-founder Mike Hasson, an Army veteran, co-founder and Area 4 co-director Wesley Hasson, along with Area 1 director Steve Capozzi have driven the success of the league, which has grown from 11 teams in 2017 to more than 50 this season. Hasson credits the league's growth to the area directors, coaches and others.

“At the local level, success is getting softball in our communities,” said Hasson, a member of American Legion Post 21 in Morganton. “Success is giving the girls an opportunity to participate in their community and represent veterans. The American Legion gives that opportunity. We encourage our girls to do one veteran community service project a year. It can be nothing more than going into a nursing home and visiting with a veteran. And learn the core values of what these guys and gals in the military stand for.”

The league is grappling with the aftermath of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, 91 teams had intended to participate. However, some local communities are restricting the use of facilities such as ball fields.

“COVID hit and it set us back a year like everybody else,” Hasson said. “We're not back to where we thought we would be this year. We had a lot more teams wanting to play. But we really feel like after this season, we're going to hit those marks. We feel like we’ll be at 80-plus teams with the interest that we have seen.”

Capozzi is coach of Post 116 in Fuquay-Varina. “I’ve been a softball coach for 10 years. It’s my hobby. It’s what I do. Some people may have a vice. This is my vice.”

A member of the SAL squadron at Post 116, Capozzi said post and team members bond together.

“American Legion softball is a family, and we emphasize that,” he said. “We don’t just play softball. We emphasize community service. Because we are a family, it’s never hard to get the girls to come help with a fish fry or other event. The girls love doing bingo night and the patrons love the girls.”

Hasson and Capozzi have their own team of all-star supporters, including Julie Kruse-John and Wesley Hasson, a member of the Sons of The American Legion squadron at Post 48 in Hickory.

Kruse-John is also an area director and coach. “Getting involved with the softball league was kind of a no-brainer,” she said. “It was just never a question for me. We have to give the girls the same opportunities that we've given to the boys.”

Service has been an important part of her life, growing up in a family full of Marines.

“We like to have the girls really learn the history of The American Legion, respect for their country,” she said. “We want them to understand the fanfare before every game. Why do we hold the flag a certain way? Why are we doing the national anthem? Why do we do the prayers that we do? Why is that important and exactly who are we playing for?”

Before the All-Star Game, every girl selects a Legionnaire who they are playing for. During their first at-bat of the game, an announcement is made of who each player is dedicating their game to. “It's just a really, really beautiful thing,” she said.

On June 15, the Post 52 team had a night off, so Kruse-John and post members worked to turn it into a teaching moment. Legionnaires welcomed the team to the post home in Franklinton, where they performed a flag retirement ceremony.

Post 52 Commander Harvey Satterwhite, Jr., explained the importance of the event.

“I have great reverence for the flag, as an individual, as for what the flag stands for,” he said. “The ceremony instills is a solemn and humbling experience for a lot of people. If you listen to the words, you will being to understand why we do what we do and why we treat the flag why we do.”

The ceremony had a lasting impression on Post 52 player Wynterlee Glenn, who does not hail from a military family but wants to go into the Army. “I liked the playing of taps and the way they did the official ceremony. It was cool.”

Glenn, a pitcher and first baseman, has improved her defense and hitting since she started playing for Post 52. “I like it because we can get out on the field and play,” she said. “I’ve hit it further than before I started playing Legion ball.”

Teammate Hollyn Carwell plays every position except pitcher. “There is more good sportsmanship in Legion ball than travel softball,” she said. “They’re giving me the opportunity to play eight weeks during the summer so I can get better.”

None of the administrators, coaches or other adults involved in the league take any financial payments.

“Seeing them grow is my payment,” Capozzi said. “It’s all about the love of the game and the love of the kids.”

Looking ahead Capozzi envisions the softball league growing and being a lynchpin for players with college aspirations. Several players are already playing college softball at Division I universities such as North Carolina State.

“Success is getting this off the ground and being stable,” he said. “We have a really bright future. Success would mean becoming more inclusive. We want to be able to get every girl who wants to play and has the skillset to be able to play.”