Drive the interstate or turnpike on a summer weekend, and you'll probably see cars, mini-vans and even campers sporting hand-painted windows showing support for traveling softball teams.
These elite squads are growing in popularity and prestige throughout Central Pennsylvania, and taking the sport locally to a new level.
The Altoona Express, managed by Vic Rizzo, is an Altoona-based traveling squad for softball players 16 and under; the roster also includes athletes from Hollidaysburg, Bellwood, Claysburg and Ebensburg.
This summer, the squad has racked up championships in addition to miles, having won tournament titles at the Keystone State Games, Frostburg (Md.), and just this past weekend, Forest Hills.
Anyone who's played with or followed a traveling team in any sport knows the level of commitment required. The Express, for example, play two doubleheaders each week and then hit the road for tournaments every other weekend.
The dedication goes well beyond the players. Parents, grandparents, friends and fans travel with these select teams, providing much more than a cheering section.
Visit one of these big-time multi-day tournaments, and you'll see dozens of pop-up canopy tents all around the fields, providing a home base for each team. Players head for cover between games, where their entourage has comfortable shade, cold drinks and barbecued meals waiting for them.
The traveling teams also expose athletes to a higher level of play, providing them with exposure to college programs, and hopefully scholarship opportunities.
"And the girls have been able to refine their skills and see better pitching," Rizzo said, "which makes them play better ball during the high school season."
Now in its fifth year, the Express's efforts are paying off for the Altoona program, whose 10-win finish in 2009 was the best record in school history. Express pitcher, Ronette Claar took her Claysburg-Kimmel squad to the PIAA Class-A semifinals.
Traveling programs in Centre County have resulted in state championships for schools like Philipsburg, Penns Valley and Bald Eagle Area, and local coaches hope to reap those rewards for the Blair County squads as well.
Rizzo says, "It's an exciting time for girls softball, and this is a relatively un-tapped sport in this area."
But it's a sport that's beginning to boom in Blair County, thanks to traveling teams like the Altoona Express and the Hollidaysburg Blue Diamonds, and the local Keystone Girls Softball League, where players can start as young as age 5.
Legion Park in Hollidaysburg provides an excellent facility, which has earned PIAA playoff status, and is drawing teams for tournaments right here.
It's a treat to watch players' skill intertwined with coaches' strategy.
Maybe that's why fans don't mind traveling hours to spend a whole weekend watching softball.
Goodman can be reached at email@example.com.