NORTH MANKATO, MINN. – Before their home opener in June, the staff of Mankato’s new professional softball team began assembling supplies for the upcoming season. The balls and water coolers were easy enough to find, but another item took a little more work.
“We needed two Australian flags,” said Mike Brielmaier, operations manager for the Aussie Peppers of Minnesota. “It wasn’t something we were going to find around here, but a guy with the color guard at the local American Legion told us where to order one.”
This summer, one of those flags is flying over the concession stand at Caswell Park, in honor of a surprising summer guest: the Australian national women’s softball team. From June through mid-August, about 30 players are living in student housing at Bethany Lutheran College, playing home games at Caswell Park and taking on a second identity as the Aussie Peppers of Minnesota in the National Pro Fastpitch league.
At a 6-5 victory over the Canadian Wild this month, the second flag was carried onto the field by a Peppers player alongside the color guard. The Aussies’ national anthem — “Advance Australia Fair” — was played before “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The beer truck sold cans of Foster’s, a favorite Aussie brew. Another famous export, the song “Down Under” by Men At Work, entertained fans between innings. To infielder Stacey Porter, it felt much like a game in Australia, save for one difference: the announced crowd of 669 fans crammed into the metal bleachers.
“Softball back home doesn’t get this kind of support,” said Porter, a two-time Olympic medalist. “This is massive. The whole community has gotten behind it.”
General Manager Matt Mangulis didn’t know what to expect when he said yes to National Pro Fastpitch Commissioner Cheri Kempf, who approached him about hosting a league franchise this summer. That led to a meeting with representatives of Softball Australia, which was looking for a place to prepare its national team to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.
The prospective partners clicked right away, leading to an unlikely summer romance between a team and a town. At the season opener in June, Mangulis counted 703 people, about three times more than he expected. Since then, he has had to bring in portable bleachers and replenish the supply of team merchandise that sold out during the first series.
“We wanted to bring this team here so girls in southern Minnesota and the region could see high-performance softball, to know there can be more after college,” said Mangulis, vice president of the Mankato Area Girls Fastpitch Association, whose teams are known as the Peppers. “This is as good as it gets.
“We leapt at the opportunity. When else would we have a chance to bring world-class softball to Minnesota?”
National Pro Fastpitch includes six teams this summer, playing a 45-game schedule capped by a championship series. Three of those — the Aussie Peppers of Minnesota, the Canadian Wild of Southern Illinois and China’s Beijing Shougang Eagles — are national teams hoping to make the six-team field for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Another franchise, Cleveland, has several players from Mexico’s national team.
Chet Gray, chief operating officer of Softball Australia, said his national program was among many that lost funding when the sport was removed from the Olympics in 2010. Six years later, when it was announced that softball would return to the Summer Games in 2020, the Aussies were looking for a way to jump-start a program that was once among the world’s best.
“We needed to re-establish our high-performance program, and one of our biggest challenges is game time,” Gray said. “By the time the girls here get to high school and university, they might play only 20 games a year. We had to come up with an idea that would have a major impact.”
He found an eager partner in Kempf, who welcomed the opportunity to expand her league’s international ties. After a handful of Australians played in NPF as a trial run in 2017, Softball Australia received funding to send a full team to the United States last season.
While the Australians spent the summer in St. Joseph, Mo., Mankato dipped its toes into NPF waters by hosting a series between Beijing and Chicago. Mangulis set it up to give Chicago pitcher Coley Ries, a former star at Mankato East and Minnesota State Mankato, a chance to play a pro game in her hometown. Kempf saw potential for something larger.
“It was livestreamed, and I watched every game,” she said. “They packed the city park. The fans understand softball, and they cheer for their team. And they had a high-quality, driven group of individuals who supported this. We loved the folks in Mankato.”
So did the Aussies. When logistical challenges in Missouri led them to seek a new home for 2019, they came for a tour of Mankato — in December, no less — and were charmed.
Mangulis said it took “two texts and a phone call” to arrange housing at Bethany Lutheran, where the Aussie Peppers also have access to athletic training facilities. While Softball Australia would fund about 80 percent of the team’s budget, which Mangulis estimated at $700,000, he would need to raise money for operating costs.
He set up a public benefit corporation, with a mission to advance women’s and girls’ softball by adding a pro team to the Mankato Peppers girls’ softball organization. Shares cost 25 cents each and were snapped up by youth softball associations in towns such as St. James, Fairmont and Prior Lake.
“Our business model was, let’s reach out to all our friends and offer them a stake in it,” Mangulis said. “We didn’t want this to just be for Mankato. We wanted this to be Minnesota’s team.”
Comforts of home
The Aussie Peppers entered Monday in last place in NPF, with an 8-22 record. Still, they’ve been a local hit.
Coach Laing Harrow said a Dunkin’ shop has created a doughnut to honor the team. Brielmaier introduced them to cheese curds; they introduced him to Vegemite sandwiches. The players frequent the area’s coffeehouses — “Australians are very big coffee drinkers,” said catcher Carmie Sorensen — and Porter noted “there are signs everywhere” welcoming the team.
That’s been important to a group of women who upended their lives to play softball 9,500 miles away from home. Some players quit their jobs or took leaves of absence to be part of the team, Gray said. Three are college students who recently took exams online.
“People have made a huge effort to make us feel like a part of the community,” Sorensen said. “We couldn’t be happier, and we’re very, very thankful.”
Mangulis is grateful, too. The Aussie Peppers have become the role models he envisioned; they hold clinics and lessons for young players, and after each game, they meet fans along the outfield fence for autographs. Kempf said Caswell Park has created “an atmosphere like no other in the league,” with food trucks, a rooftop viewing area and the occasional live band.
In August, the Australians will go back to the other side of the world for more serious work. They are among eight teams in the Asia/Oceania Olympic qualifier Sept. 24-28 in Shanghai, with only the tournament winner advancing to the Tokyo Games.
It isn’t certain whether they will return to Minnesota. Gray said Softball Australia hopes to have “a long-term relationship” with Mankato if it is financially viable, and Mangulis feels the same way.
Whatever happens, Porter said, the players always will have the memories of their first Minnesota summer.
“We’ve really enjoyed it,” she said. “We’re obviously a long way from Australia. But we’ve felt nothing but warmth.”