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Athletes Unlimited Draft Welcomes In New Generation Of Pros

(Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

When two-time Olympian Natasha Watley announced UCLA’s Rachel Garcia’s name as the first-ever Athletes Unlimited draftee, it was another milestone added to the league’s trailblazing path.

Garcia along with Oklahoma’s Giselle “G” Juarez, Texas’ Shannon Rhodes, Minnesota’s Amber Fiser, Louisiana’s Ciara Bryan, Iowa State’s Sami Williams, LSU’s Aliyah Andrews, Oklahoma State’s Carrie Eberle, Washington’s Sis Bates and Arizona’s Alyssa Denham, Jessie Harper and Dejah Mulipola make up Athletes Unlimted’s inaugural draft class.

Unlike other sports leagues, Athletes Unlimited has no teams as it is player-driven. That also means that there are no general managers.

So who decided upon the 12 players selected on Monday night?

That responsibility belonged to the five-women Player Executive Committee of Victoria Hayward, Gwen Svekis, Tori Vidales, Haylie Wagner and Jazmyn Jackson. It was the players welcoming new members into the league by staying true to Athletes Unlimited’s identity.

“That speaks to the ethos that is Athletes Unlimited,” Athletes Unlimited senior director Cheri Kempf said in an interview with Softball America. “It is a player-centric organization. No one can really appreciate the magnitude until you can see it operate from the inside.

“From point one, when it is determined we will host a league and a sport, the first assemblance is that Player Executive Committee...It’s not unusual for this very important aspect of determining who will be drafted to be handed to the Player Executive Committee because it was them that decided who the 56 invitations went to last year to even start the league.”

All five members announced a pick during the draft’s livestream, but they weren’t the only ones. Watley was one of many guests who helped break ground on Athletes Unlimted’s newest feature.

Other women who both serve as former softball players and role models such as Miami Marlins general manager Kim Ng, ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza and Amanda Scarborough, Olympians Danielle Lawrie and Cat Osterman and NCAA home run queen Lauren Chamberlain also announced the 12 selections.

What could be better than hearing your name called to play professionally by those you once looked up to?

“It’s this moment where a small select group of players are celebrated for their excellence. Everyone hits the pause button for just a second to say ‘hooray,’ and share the honor with the players,” Kempf said.

Why didn’t a top-tier player like Oklahoma’s senior slugger Jocelyn Alo get picked on Monday? The Player Executive Committee didn’t want to extend offers to the collegiate players who still have NCAA eligibility remaining after this season like Alo, who has announced recently that she’ll use her additional year of eligibility given by the NCAA due to the pandemic to return to Norman.

For college seniors with exhausted NCAA eligibility, this isn’t the end of the road either. Athletes Unlimited will also host Open Tryouts on June 25-26 for players hoping to earn an invite to compete in the league’s second softball season. The 12 players drafted on Monday will join the 37 players already signed on for Athletes Unlimited’s season, starting on August 29, that will feature a player pool of 60.

As the 2021 college softball season heads into its final stretch, don’t say your final goodbyes to your favorite players just yet, since there are still plenty of ball games left for this year and after.

“College softball is alive and well, healthy and entertaining, impressive as always,” Kempf said. “That study churn of players that are coming out professionally is always exciting. One of the aspects that we are really proud of is that there is a professional space for them to move on to.”

odicci alexander photo by jade hewitt.jpg

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