Fast food brought Stevie Alvarez to fastpitch.
“I was at In-N-Out with my dad,” the 13-year-old recalled of how she found out about the Napa Valley Girls Fastpitch Association, “and a mom from the Napa Junior Girls (Softball League) saw my St. Helena Little League jersey and told us about it. We signed up a few days later.”
Alvarez plays first base for Bicycle Works, one of the NVGFA’s five Major Division teams for ages 13-15.
Aribella Farrell, another eighth-grader at Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School, pitches for Binstock Enterprises.
Both are in their first years in the league, which also has four Senior Division teams for ages 16-19 and is in its 70th season at Kiwanis Park in Napa.
Farrell said her father, St. Helena High football head coach Brandon Farrell, found out about the league.
“He said it could be a good chance to improve, so I decided to try it,” she said. “There’s traffic sometimes, but it’s not that far away.”
Alvarez said St. Helena’s two Little League softball teams must travel as far as American Canyon for games, so playing all of her NVGFA games at the same park has been refreshing.
“I had no clue about it; my (Little League) coaches didn’t tell me about it. But I’m going to tell my friends about it because it’s really fun,” she said. “I’ve really improved my skill set. I used to play shortstop in St. Helena, too. I was tall and people would think I was older than I was and kinda get intimidated by me. But here everyone’s good at softball, so it’s a whole different vibe. It’s nice that it’s all here and you don’t have to travel, and it’s all at night, so we can really schedule our plans around it. That’s helpful for my whole family.”
Alvarez said it’s also been fun not being on Farrell’s team.
“I’ll see her at school and then she’ll be pitching to me that night, and it’s just weird,” she said. “If she got to first base, we would smile at each other.”
Farrell said Binstock was a tight bunch before she came along, but the players, manager Robert Poppe and coach Brian Hatzenbiler welcomed her.
“They had been playing with each other for a long time and knew each other and I came in and didn’t know anybody,” she said. “But it’s a good chance to get to know new people and build your social skills. Our coaches are great and I really like my teammates. I like playing with new people. My teammates are really supportive and we know how to work with each other.”
Farrell said she had played softball for four years in the SHLL, which serves ages 6-14. She was playing for the SHLL’s 12-14 Thunderbirds the night of Binstock’s first game, but didn’t miss any more Binstock games until her family went out of state for a recent vacation.
“I tried to get some of my friends to come play with me, but they were nervous, just like I was,” she said. “But maybe they’ll try it next year.”
Farrell, who also plays basketball and does CrossFit weightlifting, likes the challenge of the Napa league.
“In Little League, we were all getting better at the same pace, and were all at the same level,” she said. “In this league there are girls who play travel ball and are really good, so it challenges me as a pitcher to be better.”
Alvarez’s Bicycle Works team is coached by NVHFA President Pat O’Brien, her daughter Emma Foote, and Kelly Lauritsen and Danny Perez.
“The coaches were super welcoming and nice,” she said. “The other girls all knew each other and I was the newbie, but everyone was really nice. Nobody was mean to me, so it was a nice transition.”
Alvarez isn’t the only outsider on her team – Gabriella Lopez commutes from American Canyon – but she would like to see it become more of the “Valley” organization its name implies.
“I lot of my friends play softball and they should come down here, too, because it’s fun and you can keep your skills sharp,” she said. “I want to keep playing for (the NVGFA) and I might play for Napa Junior Girls, too.”
O’Brien said players can now play for both NVGFA and the NJGSL, which has players as young as 6.
“They used to graduate from NJGSL to Kiwanis,” O’Brien said. “But now, because of low numbers, they raised their age limit and we lowered ours and so you have more double dippers. That used to happen only occasionally, but this year we have a whole bunch.”
Two other St. Helena residents play for Senior Division teams, Nicole Stice of Conwell Insurance and Jasmine Smith of Branagan Insurance, having started out in the Major Division. Stice’s mother, Teri, is a NVGFA board member at large, and her father umpires in the league.
Alvarez said it’s been fun to have O’Brien as her coach.
“She is a great coach. She’s super nice and she gives me a lot of advice,” Alvarez said. “I had to work on my hitting mostly, because in Little League the pitching is slower, and not throwing sidearm.”
O’Brien said that when she played in the NVGFA, St. Helena had a team called the Rockettes that host Napa teams, and vice versa.
Now it’s all in Napa, but Alvarez doesn’t have to do it alone.
“My parents, my grandpa, my grandma and my uncle come,” she said. “Grandpa was so loud tonight.”
“She has a whole rooting section,” added O’Brien. “It would be great if we could get more players from up there.”