When you look at the top players in the Class of 2024, you don’t need to scroll far to find Jayden Heavener’s name. The 15-year-old hard throwing lefty is ranked as the #11 overall prospect on Fastpitch Network and #1 prospect on Xtra Innings.
The sophomore pitcher from Pensacola, who also plays first, joined Josh Johnson’s Virginia Unity 16U team in late summer and made an immediate impact. The Johnson/Ross team which combined players from two different teams, went 25-3-2 over the fall and Heavener was spectacular. She pitched 57 innings going 11-0, surrendering just 22 hits with 116 strike outs, a 0.73 ERA and opponents hit just .117 with her on the bump. Heavener struck out 11 batters in three different games this fall.
Launched in 2019, Vexus Softball is a product of three well-established respected softball organizations merging together to grow the level of the sport in the tri-state area of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. Tom McCluskey, founder of Kraze Softball (AL), Tonia Martin, founder of TN Illusions (TN), and Phillip Rogers, Director of American Freedom (MS) realized they had the same vision and sought to provide an affordable program geared at recruiting the top talent in the area.
With over 40 years of combined experience in leading programs and successfully placing student-athletes in college programs, these three Vexus directors now form one strong softball organization geared at developing each player to compete at the highest level of competition. The Vexus Eagles feature approximately 28 teams in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee ranging from 8U-18U and growing.
The Arizona Hotshots began in the mid-’90s, and since that time the organization has delivered on its goals to play high-level softball and develop players on and off the field. Currently, the Hotshots feature 13 teams ranging from 10U to 18U. Arizona Hotshots president Brad Downes says a strength of the organization is the dedication of its coaches.
“Being volunteer-driven has been a strength of the organization for many years. We have folks that are really dedicated to promoting student-athletes who want to play beyond high school,” he says. “The folks that want to be part of the organization feel they can help young female athletes reach their academic, athletic and life goals through this sport.”
Teams across the country are familiar with the chaos and exhaustion that comes from traveling during the summer, playing in tournaments from coast to coast. However, this past season Hotshots Esparza took the grind to the next level.
“This past summer, I kind of put them through a gauntlet,” Coach Charlie Esparza says. “We set out a dramatic summer schedule that took the parents and players on the road for a 43-day tour all over the country.”
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Fastpitch Network Followed the Hotshots from AZ to Birmingham. We watched them match up against teams like the VA unity Johnson, CA Firecrackers Vines, Corona Angels, AZ hotshots Erickson, and it was difficult to find a game they did not outright win. No losses. This is a very powerful team and they should produce a lot of exciting softball next season.
Twenty years ago, softball teams in the northeast struggled to keep up with the competition in the softball mecca of the southern United States. Teams in the colder-weather climates were limited with training facilities and shorter softball seasons which hindered their ability to compete at a world class level.
In 1999, when Roy Godard launched TNT (Tuff ‘n’ Tuffer) Softball in Pennsylvania, he saw an opportunity to grow the level of competition in the northeast and change the training landscape for the sport. Godard challenged his teams to commit to a travel schedule that would take them to the top-level competition in the nation and worked to create new opportunities in the northeast such as indoor training facilities and local tournaments. Godard launched tournaments on the east coast, to showcase the athlete skills and increase the level of competition in the area.
When you talk to Audrey Lowry, you quickly realize she doesn’t just love softball, but she is a student of the game. Incredibly focused, detail oriented, and the rare kind of player who doesn’t only rely on her physical gifts but thinks through what she wants to do on the mound. And in case you haven’t been paying attention – her focused dedication is paying off in a big way.
The Beverly Bandits Conroy 16U team is off to a sizzling start. After coming in 3rd in PGF Nationals this summer, the Bandits have won both fall tournaments (PGF King of the Hill and the PGF Labor Day Tournament) on their way to a 15-0 start. They have outscored their opponents by a whopping 102-11 in those games.
Charlie Ray’s Atlanta Premier 06 team won’t be mistaken for the 1927 Yankees, but they can sure beat you in a variety of ways.
“We’re quick and small with some power,” said Ray, who plans to coach this team all the way through its 18U years. “We can steal bases top to bottom. We don’t hit a lot of home runs, but we dent the fence pretty good.”
Despite not hitting a ton of long balls, the team’s offense can look like poetry in motion when it’s clicking on all cylinders.
When Chad Warne and Pat Racanelli observed how the travel organization their daughters played for operated, they felt important pieces were missing.
“Call it arrogance or what have you, I just felt like we could do it better,” Racanelli says.
The two began discussing programs and resources they wished the organization offered to help their daughters grow into well-rounded individuals and get recruited to play college softball. Soon they founded Prodigy Fastpitch, a faith-based organization that helps players develop their skills, navigate the recruiting process and grow as individuals.
Carolina Elite produces top-notch softball players through rigorous coaching and relentless networking. Tony Genovese coached the first 14U team in 2007. Soon after that he brought Dana Fusetti on board. The organization has grown from there, now with teams from 8U through 23U.
Fusetti believes the organization’s greatest strength is the connections that she and coaches Genovese and Shaun Gleason have with college programs.
“We work really well together from a coaching standpoint to help get kids recruited. If a Carolina Elite coach has a player on their team that wants to go to a particular school, and that coach does not have a relationship with one of the coaches from that program, he can reach out to Tony and me. It’s not a competition by any means. We have the same goal: get the kids recruited,” Fusetti says.
Jaysoni (Jay) Beachum comes through for her team in the biggest moments, whether a big hit is needed or a game changing play in the field.
The 16-year-old class of 2023 talent plays for the U18 Mojo Danley squad and is one of the best players in her class – ranking as the #6 corner infielder and 49th overall player on Fastpitch and 12th ranked player on Extra.
Beachum is a complete player – swinging a big bat, while being a smooth fielder and possessing an upbeat personality off-the-field that teammates gravitate towards. Her number 24 has a special meaning. It was her grandmother’s number when she played softball and as Beachum explains, “she sounds like she was the real deal from back in the day.”