Local ladies redefine hardball

Team USA hardball squad member Christina Fritz, of Klamoth Falls, joins Ceilidh Sligh, Kylee McWilliams, Autumn Lee and Lisa Joosten as they take a minute to intimidate at a practice last week. - Photo by James Mange
Team USA hardball squad member Christina Fritz, of Klamoth Falls, joins Ceilidh Sligh, Kylee McWilliams, Autumn Lee and Lisa Joosten as they take a minute to intimidate at a practice last week.
— image credit: Photo by James Mange

When most people hear about “playing hardball,” they think either about baseball or driving a hard bargain.

For a select group of local world class athletes, hardball means hockey.

On rollerskates.

Four area women are in Santiago, Chile with Team USA in a major international Hardball Hockey tournament, along with their coach, Frankie Lee, one of the owners of Skateland in Bremerton. Ceilidh Sligh, Kylee McWilliams, Lisa Joosten and Autumn Lee are representing the United States in the COPA America 2007 tournament and are part of the reason Bremerton is a perennial power at the national level.

Sligh is the veteran on the team, and at only 21 she is already in her seventh year of international competition. Sligh has been playing hardball hockey for 17 years, earning her first berth on the national team at age 15. She’s played in tournaments in South America and Europe, as well as being a prime factor in Bremerton’s amazing run at the U.S. Nationals.

Bremerton won 13-straight national championships up until this past summer, when Lee split the team to try to sweep the top two spots. The move backfired slightly, and Bremerton came away with the silver and bronze.

“We generally take nine to 11 teams to nationals in the different divisions,” Lee said, “and for the last five years we’ve placed two teams in the women’s division.”

Last summer’s nationals were in Salt Lake City and three Bremerton players were selected afterward to join Team USA: Sligh and Lee’s two daughters, Ashley and Autumn.

The group placed seventh at the World’s in Vin del Mar, Chile last October. Ashley is one of the players unable to take the trip this time, making way for McWilliams and Joosten to step up for their first international experience.

McWilliams was voted as an alternate to the national team last summer and Joosten also was ranked as one of the nation’s best. Their rankings are what got them on the team, not their affiliation with Frankie Lee. He thinks this tournament will be a great learning opportunity.

“It’ll be a real eye opener,” Lee said. “Every team that will be there is a top team from last year’s World’s, but you never know. Some of the top players on each team play professionally in Europe, and they may not take time off for this tournament. We could be in the picture.”

Hardball hockey has been played since 1878 and was first called “roller polo.” The game came to America in 1882 and was a part of the Pan-American Games until Canada slid in-line hockey into its place during a host year. Now, neither brand of hockey is included and the COPA America 2007 tournament is a demonstration to the Pan-Am Games of hardball’s continuing appeal.

Lee himself is a former national team member and competed in the Pan-Am Games, winning a silver medal in 1986. He’s been the tournament’s high scorer in World competition and was named to the All-World Defensive Team in the mid-1990s. He was

the assistant coach for Team USA women in 2000 and has been the head coach since 2002.

Sligh’s eyes light up when she talks about the game.

“It’s intense,” Sligh said. “It’s like a cat and mouse game. You make one bad pass, you can lose the game.”

Bad passes aren’t usually a problem for Sligh, who works at Hazelwood Toyota.

“She’s fantastic,” Lee said. “She’s an animal. She’s tough on offense, defense, she’s everywhere. She’s good at every aspect of the game.”

Autumn Lee, of North Kitsap High School, is a sound all-around player as well.

“She’s got good fundamentals,” Lee said. “She’s maybe the most fundamentally sound player we’ve got.”

Autumn has been around the game all her life and looks up to her father.

“He’s like my idol,” Autumn said. “I want to be just like him.”

She’s off to a good start, having already scored her first World Cup goals last fall in a game against South Africa.

McWilliams drew praise from Lee as well.

“I think she should have been on Team USA already,” Lee said. “I think the only reason she wasn’t was politics. She’s an aggressive girl, and she’s got great defense.”

McWilliams and Joosten both attend Olympic High School.

“Lisa’s a good all-around player, too,” Lee said of Joosten. “She’s a real scrapper being around the cage and picking up loose balls.”

The team also includes Christina Fritz of Klamoth Falls, Ore. (who makes the drive to Bremerton to practice with the local quartet whenever she can), two-time MVP Shilo Schmelcher and Danielle Walter, who was named Best Goalie in the women’s division in six of the last seven years.

The group will return from Chile May 22.

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