Anyone who follows professional softball can expect to see the same players on the country’s top three teams year after year.
However, which jersey those athletes will wear for the season is not so easy to predict.
The 51st annual Smoky Mountain Classic features plenty of familiar faces, such as three-time Smoky MVP Andy Purcell, but the field has experienced its usual shakeup, shifting the dynamic of competition across the major teams.
Purcell is among five former Smash It players competing for top-seeded TDB after sponsors on the Smash It squad decided to part ways.
“What it boils down to as a player is who do you want to play with and who do you want your teammates to be,” Purcell said. “I’ve been around a long time, and this team is special.”
TDB ranks first in the Conference USSSA power rankings for the majors with 1,436 points — 162 ahead of last year’s Smoky champion Resmondo, and 192 ahead of Dan Smith. TDB won its opening game Friday afternoon at Sandy Springs Park. It was scheduled to play a second game late on Friday for a berth in the winner's bracket quarterfinals.
All four quarterfinal games will be played at Sandy Springs on Saturday in succession. The first game is scheduled for 9:15 a.m. The semifinals and winner's bracket final also will be played at Sandy Springs on Saturday. Loser's bracket games will also be played all day Saturday at Sandy Springs, Everett Park and Denso Park and SpringBrook.
The Smoky takes place during the home stretch of the season ahead of the Major World Series Championship in September in Vierra, Florida.
For that reason, it’s a crucial tournament.
“The top three teams are all pretty close with each other in points,” Purcell said. “Other than a dual in Florida, this is the highest point total we’ll have for the rest of the year.”
Resmondo has returned its core of players while picking up Kyle Pearson, who transferred from Smash It. Pearson’s contract last season required him to play for a team sponsored by his bat manufacturer, Miken. Pearson is among the many professional athletes competing in this tournament who have their own signature bats.
“I had fun last year, I still love all those guys, too,” Pearson said of Smash It. “There’s a lot of mutual respect between the top two, three teams out there.”
How it works, Brian Zirkle of TBD said, is players are basically “shopped upon.” Sponsors call the athletes and make their offers. Once committed to a team, players travel across the country competing in 12-15 tournaments a year.
Zirkle said athletes are responsible for staying in playing shape on their own.
“Sometimes the highest bidder wins. Sometimes it’s about chemistry,” Zirkle said. “I like playing with friends and having fun, so I’ve kind of stuck with the same core of guys for the last seven years. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Teams such as Resmondo have the resources to attract the best talent. It has won the Smoky Mountain Classic a record 12 times, including last year's 49-29 win over Smash It in the 50th Anniversary title game.
“We’re lucky enough that we have a budget where we can pick up guys from everywhere and keep it together,” Neil Haglund of Resmondo said. “I think we’ve got a good shot at (winning). Last year, we won pretty decidedly, and I think our team has gotten better.”
Purcell — who was on the receiving end of the loss to Resmondo in the Smoky championship — hopes for a different outcome. He said what makes TDB special this season is its chemistry.
“It’s natural,” Purcell said. “You get cliques here and there or some people don’t get along. Our whole team gets along. We love being around each other.”
Zirkle echoed the important role chemistry has played in TDB’s success this year. However, he said the team is all business when it steps onto the field.
“There are tons of good double AA teams in the country," Zirkle said. "Those teams are built with some major players that just weren’t asked to be on our teams. They have the chance to beat anybody on any given day, so we’ve got to go out and do our job.”