Stephanie Best is an innovator.
The Florida resident seems to—by fate, if not intention—lead the way in many areas of her career, be it as an outstanding college player or a trend-setting event producer.
As the first player recruited by University of Central Florida’s softball program, Best still holds program records for career batting average (.384), runs scored (216), RBI (213), hits (285), home runs (71), slugging percentage (.756), total bases (562), on-base percentage (.487), walks (147), intentional walks (28), assists (558) and games played (272).
The slugger also holds numerous season and game records, which includes her record of 11 RBI versus Army on March 19, 2003, when Best tied the NCAA record for RBI in a game and was named the NFCA/ Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week after hitting three home runs, including two grand slams in the same inning.
And her 71 career home runs still rank in the NCAA Division I Top 10, while her 26 round-trippers in 2005 led the nation.
During her playing career, the shortstop became the most decorated softball player in UCF history and the Fort Mill, South Carolina native was a NCAA National Woman of the Year nominee in 2005, earning her third-consecutive Atlantic Sun Player of the Year honor as well.
After her record-setting collegiate career, Best headed to the National Pro Fastpitch League where she played for five years and even won the 2007 NPF Championship with the Washington Glory, but then something interesting happened: she realized her real interest in softball was to help young players by connecting them with the pros to share the older players’ passion for the game along with their insights on technique.
Thus, ProSwings Camps was born.
Quickly, the camps grew in prominence because the pros loved them and, as many of them were also collegiate coaches, they asked to bring other pros into the mix. Today, ProSwings Camps are known in Florida for the high-quality interactions between the young high school-aged campers and the well-established coaches.
Best, who is never satisfied with just producing “good” events, has roundtables after the camps to review the weekend with the coaches who staff them. One idea kept coming up over and over again: the camp coaches asked the event director to organize a tournament based on the same principles as her camps.
Last year, ProSwings launched its first Power50 Tournament and this fall, the East Coast recruiting season kicks off with not one, but two ProSwings Power50 Camps on the Florida circuit.
The development of these tournament-style experiences was a unique process, Best explains.
“I’m not interested in the rat race of showcases,” she states. “I wanted a small, boutique-style, intimate event.”
The UCF Hall of Fame inductee met with over 20 college coaches to develop her tournament model, trying to incorporate her camp style and respect the recruiting rules in effect and the results were immediate: ProSwings was hugely successful in 2017 and both of her 2018 events have been sold out for months.
Best made the access to high-quality players and teams a priority; the tournament has a seven-inning game format with a competitive structure including prizes for the teams who win each pool. It’s a highly-coveted and not just anyone can get in.
“We want them to compete,” Best continues. “Teams reach out to us, but we are dedicated to keeping this exclusive and invite-only.”
Last year, Best and her protégé Tonya Waters spent a great deal of time on the phone with top teams, trying to get them to give the new event a try. This year, teams were reaching out to them.
“Every single coach from our camp and beyond voted on the teams who were invited,” Best shared, revealing that there would be a heavy presence of schools from around the Southeast at both of her events.
“People have asked me which is the better event, but they’re both great. They both have high quality teams.”
Another innovation Best has brought into her events is the blurring of age division lines in the competitive pools, which has raised the eyebrows of some travel ball coaches, but Best says she has the interest of the players at heart. The event producer placed teams in need of recruiting—those with few commits--in locations with high traffic.
And the teams who have won nationally or are stacked with committed players? They’re facing off in the toughest pools she could construct, some even facing junior college teams.
“We have built this tournament based on competition,” Best said. “Most events will have teams compete at their selected level, but I want to prepare kids to play at the next level.”
Preparation for success at the next level of play is a key focal point for Best.
“We need to put more pressure on kids to compete, but in the safest possible environment,” she said. “When these players get to college there will be 17-year-olds who show up on campus who have to compete against 22-year-old seniors for a starting role on a team. They have to learn to compete.
This is my way to facilitate that. They are going to fail, but their success in those situations will be more valuable than success in a traditional tournament experience. They will walk away with more belief in their abilities.”
Best says she’s aiming for an exciting, competitive environment that will help athletes realize that they have the ability to compete on any stage. The event kicks off this Friday night with a home run derby that pits youth-aged players from the tournament against some of the best hitters to ever swing a stick.
Every team can nominate two competitors to hit, and the top hitters will then square off against Bianka Bell (LSU), Alex Powers (Florida State), Aleshia Ocasio (Florida), Kayli Kvistad (Florida), and Jessi Warren (Florida State), all heavy hitters in their own right. The player participants aren’t segregated by age group, either, as 12U players will be pitted against 18U players. Age and experience aside, it’s all about who can hit for power on Friday night.
With an emcee, a deejay, and over 300 spectators ready to cheer on their teammates, it will be an electrifying start to the ProSwings Power50 event.
“It’s so cool to see the pros and the kids interacting already on social media,” Best says, as players and pros are tagging each other and “smack talking” on social platforms heading into this Friday’s event.
The home run derby for the club athletes against the pros is a unique element that Best feels sets the stage for the competitive atmosphere—and more.
“One exciting conversation can change the trajectory of the future for that kid,” Best believes. “This is a way to let the pros share their passion for the game we love.”
It is also her nod to growing the sport and helping to spread the word about professional softball, which still needs as much help as possible, she feels.
This year, the two Power 50 Events are three weekends apart and schools with big programs—and small—are committed to attend. Although there was enough demand to increase the size of the events, Best stayed committed to her smaller model.
“We presented hundreds of teams to the college coaches to decide who would be invited,” she explains. “We intentionally stay small as I want events that are relationship-driven and beneficial for both the teams and the college coaches.”
Another unique feature is that match-up process. Best said that some of the match-ups were requested by the college coaches coming to the events, who specifically asked to see teams pitted against each other.
“College coaches have put their eyes on every pool, giving feedback on match-ups and pools,” she said. “An idea, a team, a bracket: many of them came directly from calls I received from college coaches with interest or recruits on these teams.”
Next spring, a ProSwings Futures event is slated, focusing on younger teams. Berths must be won to get into that event.
Innovation comes with replication when something executed works well and some other tournaments are already mirroring elements of the events and incorporating them into their events. Best sees it as a compliment and never veers from her mission.
“We’re completely dedicated to quality,” she said. “We will keep innovating and improving and finding ways to get better. Feedback from the coaches help me learn, adjust and improve the events every year.”