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Haylie Wagner: “We Are the New Era of Softball”

Pitcher ready to throw the ball / JWS
Pitcher ready to throw the ball / JWS

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.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

One former player contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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