Midstate Classic Promotes Columbia Sports Tourism

Midstate Classic Promotes Columbia Sports Tourism
Posted on 04/10/2018
Columbia Daily Herald Photo - Univ of Tn Coaches Ralph & Karen Weekly with Univ of Memphis Coach Natalie PooleArticle and photo courtesy of the Columbia Daily Herald: The University of Tennessee and University of Memphis softball teams arrived in Columbia on Monday night, 24 hours before Tuesday night’s sold-out Midstate Classic game at the Ridley Sports Complex.
The Lady Vols stayed in their team hotel by the freeway, enjoying a team meal and listening to the Columbia’s Serendipity Jazz Combo serenade them with “Rocky Top.”
The Tigers visited Southern Tre Steakhouse downtown and were greeted with freshly baked cookies from Windmill Bakery after driving to town from Memphis.
UT co-coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly and Memphis coach Natalie Poole had dinner with Columbia City Manager Tony Massey and Mayor Dean Dickey, among other city officials, at River Terrace on Riverside Drive.
The coaches were thanking city officials for their hospitality. The mayor and city manager were offering gratitude for the teams agreeing to play, the fourth time the Lady Vols have come to Muletown.
“We’re very fortunate to have the Lady Vols come back to Columbia again this year,” Massey said. “I hope they will want to play in Columbia every year. We’re equally fortunate to have the University of Memphis come. It’s unique to have two big, in-state schools come to tangle here in Columbia.
“We have been jokingly saying that East plays West and meets in the middle,” he added. “It’s going to be exciting.”
For the city, the partnership with the Tennessee coaches has been part of a calculated plan to turn Columbia into a sports tourism mecca. After completion of soccer fields at Ridley Park, the city will have spent close to $20 million on recreational facilities for softball and soccer.
In my opinion, Columbia has become the softball capital of the state. More than 40 softball tournaments a year take place in Ridley Park, bringing thousands of dollars in sales tax revenue to the city. Nearly 1,000 Columbia residents play on recreational teams.

“We would put Ridley Park up against any other sports complex in the state or Southeast,” Massey said. “It’s a premier softball complex. We hear that all of the time from recreational league and college coaches. We have not rested on our laurels. We are improving it year after year.”
The Midstate Classic adds to Columbia’s allure. Ridley Park only needs permanent outfield seats, a better press box and ticket facilities before it rivals some of the best facilities in the country.
“The emerald green grass out there in early April shows the tender, loving care that our grounds crew has paid to the field,” Massey said. “Once the soccer fields are built in the back of the part, they will be up to the standards of the softball fields. We really want to be in the sports tourism business. We want softball and soccer tournaments, and their fans, to come here.”
I wish the Tennessee Junior College Athletic Association would hold its state softball tournament in Columbia every year instead of alternating it between community colleges with lighted facilities.
Another option would be for the 12-team Ohio Valley Conference, featuring softball teams at Belmont, Tennessee Tech, Austin Peay, UT-Martin and Tennessee State, to take a look at Columbia. This year’s OVC tournament will be played in Oxford, Ala., a neutral site about halfway between Birmingham and Atlanta, instead of the No. 1-seeded team’s stadium.
“The college players like coming here,” Massey said. “We have a great relationship with Ralph and Karen Weekly, and they like coming to Columbia. They told me that every summer, the girls on the team ask, ‘Are we going to get to go to Columbia this year?’ That tells you a lot about the impression we have made with the players.
“We treat them right, and we want them to come back. We want them to leave, bragging about how they were treated by the fans in Columbia.”

For the softball players, the Midstate Classic has turned into an event — almost like a bowl game for a football team. The players come to town. They’re treated well and reciprocate by signing autographs and taking pictures with fans.
For the coaches, it’s a chance to play an in-state opponent. The Lady Vols have rarely lost to another Tennessee team since starting softball in 1996. The Weeklys never have lost an in-state game since taking over at UT before the 2002 season.
UT comes to Columbia ranked No. 8 in the USA Today/Coaches poll with a 33-8 overall record. They’re 5-7 in the Southeastern Conference, having lost two of three games over the weekend at Auburn and seven of their last 10. Memphis has an 29-11 record, 5-4 in the underrated American Athletic Conference.
The Weeklys collaborated with Massey in creating the Midstate Classic in 2014. The first game with Middle Tennessee State was played in blustery conditions but was well received. In 2016, the Lady Vols routed Belmont, 12-0. In 2017, a highly anticipated showdown between UT and Auburn was cancelled because of cold conditions.
I think the 2017 game could have been played and personally observed that the Lady Vols wanted to go on with the show. Auburn’s former coach, Clint Myers, who resigned after the season, was not as cooperative. Fans who bought tickets were offered a refund.
The softball program at Tennessee has turned into its gold standard. Years ago, it was the Lady Vols basketball program under the late coach Pat Summitt. UT renewed Ralph and Karen Weekly’s contracts, due to expire after this season, through 2023 for a combined $467,000 annually. That’s a $2.3 million investment for five years.
The Weeklys have taken the Lady Vols to seven Women’s College World Series appearances, including runner-up finishes in 2007 and 2013. Tennessee has averaged more than 47 wins per season over the last five years.

Meanwhile, Poole and the Tigers have been competitive in the American Athletic Conference, which includes Memphis, South Florida, Central Florida, Tulsa, Wichita State, Houston, East Carolina and Connecticut. Six of the eight teams have winning records this season. If Memphis knocks off Tennessee on Tuesday night, all eight teams will have beaten ranked opponents in 2018.
Former Columbia State standout Ashley Threatt leads the Tigers with six home runs. Two hitters, Kyler Trosclair and Baylee Smith, have batting averages above .400. Pitcher Molly Smith is 17-4 with a 1.48 earned run average.
“They’re a good, improving team,” Ralph Weekly said last year when the Midstate Classic matchup was announced.
The city expects 3,500 fans for Tuesday’s game, Parks and Recreation Director Mackel Reagan said. He recommends that fans ride the Mule Town Trolley from Columbia State to Ridley Park. The shuttle will start at 3 p.m.
“Our staff has done an amazing job preparing for this event,” Reagan said. “Every member of our staff has had something to do with this event.”
Dickey, who has supported the expansion of sports tourism during his eight years in office, noted that the last three Midstate Classics have been scheduled in March. This one was moved back a month to avoid another cancellation.
“It will be better weather,” Dickey noted. “It might be a little chilly later in the evening. It should be just fine for the first pitch.”

For one night at least, Columbia will be the softball capital of Tennessee. Not Knoxville or Memphis.
“It’s a big plus for us,” Dickey said. “We want people to come, look at our sports facilities and use them. We want people to look at our city, too, while they’re here for tournaments or games. I hope they talk about us when they go home, remember us, then bring their businesses, restaurants and jobs to Columbia.”