ROSEMONT, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 29: Haylie Wagner #17 of Team Wagner pitches in the first inning against Team Pendley at Parkway Bank Sports Complex on August 29, 2020 in Rosemont, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

Haylie Wagner is a left-handed pitcher for Athletes Unlimited, a new, players-focused softball league recently launched in Chicago, Illinois. During the first week of play, she was one of four captains who selected her own team for competition. We spoke to her about the process, AU’s model of play, and what it means for the future of the sport.   

What went into your decision to join Athletes Unlimited?

My decision was actually 10 months in the making. I got a call and decided to take a day trip along with Victoria Hayward, and we went to New York to have this league pitch to us this wonderful, amazing, unique idea. From the second I sat down in that office in New York City, I was intrigued and excited and so interested to see where this was going to go. It didn’t take more than a month, less than a month, to have a contract issued and be on board to get this thing going and start this new adventure. I wanted to play softball. I wanted to be a part of history, and 10 months later, we’re here. It’s been amazing.

The league format puts the power in the players’ hands. You are the ones choosing your fate, choosing who is your team and even coaching the team. Do you think that has made you more engaged and invested so far?

Definitely. I think being able to have a little bit more control over everything and not just being a captain, but also just all the other athletes, we really have to pay attention to who’s doing what and who works well together. We have to focus on how points are being made because, who knows, next week we could be captain and we’re in charge of drafting our team. You really have to pay attention to individual aspects, which makes everything more competitive. We’re able to go out there and focus on those points for ourselves, while also saying, hey, this person’s doing really well too, I better pay attention. That adds extra competitiveness, so it’s really good.

You were a captain for week 1. What was it like drafting your team?

For our second scrimmage, I was actually the captain as well for the gold team, so I kind of had a little bit of background and I got to experience it once. But being able to go into the first real draft, and knowing it’s for a series of three games, you had to think a little bit different about it. I knew my plan going into it, but I knew after the first pick it was probably not going to work out perfectly. And that’s exactly what happened. I had a list of my order of catchers that I wanted, and three out of the top four were taken, so I had to adjust real quickly and go from there. The strategizing part is really fun. You have to have a depth chart of four or five different options that you would be comfortable with and have an order for it and go from there based on what you need. For me, as a pitcher, I knew I wanted a defense that could also hit and produce some runs. I know that if I’m pitching, I can count on them to get them out and then get them in the dugout to provide some offense.

You choose Amanda Chidester as your #1 pick. How much did playing together at Michigan have a factor in that selection?

I don’t think playing with her had a lot to do with it. I love Amanda Chidester. She was a senior when I was a freshman in college, so I’ve played many, many years with her. She can do a lot of things, and I knew right then and there that I wanted her on my team. I also did not want to pitch to her. That had a big factor in it as well. And for each draft, there are four facilitators, for each team each week, and they rotate through depending on the color of team. I had Lauren Lappin who is also my coach from last year, so that has been really helpful just knowing that I can trust her, I know how she coaches, I know she knows the lineup. These are things that I’ve never really had to fully think about before. Being able to talk with her and talk it through and have different opinions and advice was really, really helpful.

With the unique scoring system, there’s an emphasis on individual points. With that in mind, do you have any individual goals that you’re focused on this season?

I don’t think they’re individual goals based off of the money side or the bonus points. I think, as a pitcher, my goal is always to go out there to attack the hitters and get outs, and I’m not going to change that. I want my defense to work and I want to produce some offense. Really individually, I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing all these years and compete, and there’s not one bad athlete in this league, so it’s going to be tough and it’s going to be exciting and competitive, and it’s going to be mentally and physically exhaustive, but individually I’m just going to keep being me.

The season is six weeks with a lot of back-to-back games, what are your expectations for nonstop action? 

I’m excited to have a three game series. It kind of takes us back to the college days of a three game series in a weekend and just back to back to back. In a way, we’re all kind of used to it. It might have been a few years for multiple people or some may have just graduated, but it’s going to be tiring. It’s going to be exhausting. The off day that we have every Tuesday is going to be very important for everybody to get their recovery in. But it’s going to be a fun, exciting five weeks. For a lot of us, it’s been over a year since we’ve played in a game, so we’re really excited about that and to be able to put softball on the map and be on national TV, on ESPNU, is really amazing.

Athletes Unlimited has redesigned the way you play pro sports. They just added volleyball and there are other sports in the work. What do you think this type of a league will do for women’s sports at the pro level and specifically for softball?

For women’s sports in general, I just think it’s going to be really intriguing to a lot of people and a lot of fans, especially once fans can come to stadiums and come to arenas and come to facilities and actually watch and participate. I know that they have some really awesome things planned for fans in person, so just really keeping fans engaged and keeping them excited and intrigued. The point system is another way for them to really focus in and kind of keep track along the way with everything. For softball in general, I think it’s history in the making. We are the new era of softball. It’s a new, exciting time, and we’re able to still play in person during a pandemic. I think that’s just really exciting to be able to play and be on national TV during this crazy time and hopefully bring some joy to some households.

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