National Senior Games: 35 years later, softball trio returns to Albuquerque

From left to right: Sue Benjamin, Diane Pevny and Karen Strittmatter prepared to play Friday in Albuquerque for the first time since they were in town for a national softball tournament in the 1980s. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

There were Golden Girls, Dyehards, Speedy Turtles and Silver Streaks.

Maryland sent us the Crabby Pitches, Northeast Ohio’s Hot Flashes are here and so, too, are California’s Legit Ol Ladies.

While the 2019 National Senior Games get going in earnest with hundreds of events in and around Albuquerque on Saturday, the first actual events contested were Friday afternoon at the new Albuquerque Regional Sports Complex on the west side.

That’s where the girls of the 50-plus division of women’s softball began pool play and Albuquerque officially began its role as host of the largest National Senior Games in history – a massive undertaking of nearly 14,000 athletes getting an opportunity to experience the city and state.

For three players from New Jersey’s “Jersey Strong” softball team, Friday was a bit of a 35-year-old case of déjà vu.

“We were here in 1984 for nationals,” said Karen Strittmatter, a 58-year-old second baseman for Jersey Strong, one of 30 teams from around the country participating in the 50-plus division.

“I remember the red mountains. That stood out from the field we were playing at (in 1984). The scenery. It’s beautiful.”

The National Senior Games began Friday afternoon with softball games, which were held at the Albuquerque Regional Sports Complex. Pictured is the team Hit Hobble, a group of players made up from around the four corners area in Northwestern New Mexico and Colorado. Here they join hand for a moment of inspiration prior to taking the field against a team from Ohio. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

The red glow of the Sandias welcomed Strittmatter and fellow softball lifers Diane Pevny, a 59-year-old shortstop, and Sue Benjamin, a 58-year-old third baseman, back to Albuquerque on Friday, where the view from the west side over the city offers a perfect view of the mountains the New Jersey infield trio said they just don’t get back home and looked forward to returning to this week.

The three played for the Blue Jays, a team from Northern New Jersey in 1984 when they advanced through a regional qualifier to play in the ASA Class A women’s fastpitch national championship, hosted in Albuquerque.

“We’re back together for the Senior Games,” Pevny said.

Truth is, the trio really never left each other.

Of course family and kids and marriages and life slowed down the playing, but softball never left their lives. Neither did the friendship.

All three still coach softball in some capacity, and they’ve all kept playing through the years, mostly on teams in northern New Jersey area together, and all coach the game at some level.

“We’re still trying to explain it to our parents,” Pevny joked. “‘Why are you still playing?’ Well, why not?”

This return visit to Albuquerque marks the third National Senior Games the Jersey Strong team has qualified for and the trio isn’t alone in having played together for much of the past three or four decades. But only Strittmatter, Pevny and Benjamin were on both that 1984 team that came to Albuquerque and this one.

The trio flew into Denver on Tuesday and visited their coach from that 1984 team, 88-year-old Bernie Walsen, who lives in Colorado and still coaches a 16-under softball club team. They also attended a Colorado Rockies game, went rafting near Durango and visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve before driving the rest of the way down to Albuquerque for the Games.

“In some ways, it feels like a lifetime ago we were here,” Benjamin said. “But you remember moments. You remember rushing to games. The rain (it rained during their 1984 tournament).

“And for us. Having that great sense of community and team. And we still have that today. It’s a great that we’re separate with everybody having their own lives, but we still come together to make some magic and have a little fun.”

The first New Mexico-based team to make its presence felt in the 2019 National Senior Games was Hit & Hobble, a Farmington-based team that actually has some cross-border flavor to it, too.

“What’s nice about us is we’re made up of Coloradoans and New Mexicans,” said outfielder Kim Noyes.

Hit & Hobble, which has eight New Mexicans and five players from Colorado ranging in age from 50 to 68, has qualified in the past for the National Senior Games, but this is the first time the team was able to participate in them.

The team fell 13-9 on Field No. 3 to the NE Ohio Hot Flashes, but team captain Andrea Taylor, who has played softball since the age of 16, only after switching over from baseball that she played since the age of 8, says their best is yet to come.

“We’re just getting the kinks out,” Taylor said. “We can play a lot better and will play better as this goes on.”

The team gets two more pool-play games Saturday before teams are placed in brackets for the next round of the softball tournament, which on the women’s side has a total of six divisions and 103 teams, including four playing in the 75-plus division.

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