This is the third straight year Juneau's Midnight Suns Fastpitch Softball Association has sent teams to Salem, Ore., for an annual Fourth of July weekend tournament.
But Midnight Suns coach Dave Massey received a surprise when he went on the Web to print out brackets for the 80-team tournament that takes place Saturday and Sunday in Salem. When he called up the brackets, he noticed the tournament was now called the Alaskan Midnight Suns Fourth of July Classic.
"It was kind of a shock, a surprise," Massey said about the tournament's name change. "I don't think it really had a name before. I'm really not sure why they made the change. Our goal has always been to be classy and to make friends, and we've had a lot of barbecues when we've been there."
Last year the Midnight Suns sent three teams to the Salem tournament, and two of them won their age groups (the 18-younger and 14-younger teams). Massey said he thought his 16-younger team was the strongest in its bracket, but an upset on the tournament's second day prevented the team from giving Juneau a clean sweep in the divisions it participated in. There are five age groups in the tournament, which is a fund-raiser for Salem's Flash team.
Earlier today, four Midnight Suns teams boarded planes for Salem, including a 12-younger team. The only tournament division without a Juneau team is 10-younger. Massey said this is the seventh straight year the Midnight Suns have traveled to the Lower 48 for tournaments.
After the Salem tournament, three of the four Juneau teams will continue on to other tournaments while the 18-younger team will come back home. If the 18-younger team finishes higher in the standings than the only other Alaska team in the tourney, the Alaska North Stars of Fairbanks, the Midnight Suns will return to Salem for the National Fastpitch Softball Association's national championships on July 26-29.
The 14-younger and 16-younger teams will play games in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the middle of next week, then move on to Mount Vernon, Wash., for a tournament on July 7-8. The 12-younger team will play midweek games in Victoria, British Columbia, then compete in a tournament in Vancouver on July 7-8.
Several of the 14-younger players were on the team that won last year's tournament, and they said they're ready to defend their title.
"We got a trophy this big," said Ashley Larson, as she held her hand about chest high. "We didn't know they'd named the tournament after us, but we're like from the farthest area. Last year we had a lot of younger players and we didn't know what to expect. This year we're there to have fun."
"I'm hoping we can win again," added Nicole Bavard. "But every game makes us better, even when we lose."
Another of the 14-younger players said the Midnight Suns end up teaching the other tournament teams about Alaska.
"They think we live in igloos and stuff," Jordan Johnston said.
"All of our trips are so fun," Arika Lindsey said. "We get to know each other well, and we're like sisters by the end. I think we're a better team this year."
The Midnight Suns program is run in conjunction with the Gastineau Channel Little League program. All the Midnight Suns players are required to play on Little League teams, which means many of the players compete against each other throughout the summer before they regroup for tournaments.
"We're not here to compete with the Little League program," Massey said. "We pick our teams in September, and in the fall we take them to Las Vegas for a tournament."
Massey said one of the purposes of the Midnight Suns program is to expose the Juneau players to higher levels of competition they might not see in Juneau, or the rest of Alaska. Many of the players who go through the program end up playing for the Juneau-Douglas High School Crimson Bears, and a few of them have even gone on to compete for college teams.
"With the younger teams, they might get creamed in their first game," Massey said. "But then they start to understand what we've been telling them and they play a lot better after that. Like they learn why you need to cheat in on the corners in a bunt situation, even if nobody does it in Juneau."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.