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SERIES: Making the merge, part one

This month, we’re looking at how Delta sports associations are keeping teams going – and why many are deciding to join forces.
Delta Heat ‘01 practices at in Cloverdale before the start of the 2017 season.

In a municipality divided against itself, many Delta sports teams are struggling to remain competitive against their more populous neighbours. This month, we’re looking at how associations are keeping teams going – and why many are deciding to join forces.

The diamond smelled of dirt beneath the July sun. Sara Groenewegen’s fingers closed around the softball, the last of so many she had pitched that day. Kennedy Bailey, bat in hand and Delta jersey on, was ready.

It was the final game of the 2011 Softball B.C. Provincial Championships: Delta Heat ’96 versus the White Rock Renegades ’95.

Earlier in the tournament, the Renegades had mercied the Heat in a game that ended early at 8-0, and many expected this game to go the same way. But the Renegades were getting nervous.

They had gotten a run early on, but the score stagnated until the bottom of the seventh inning. Bob Houtman was standing at the first base line, coaching the Delta Heat as they ran to base. He heard the whispers from the other team.

They were saying: “I don’t like the way this game’s going, it’s too close. I don’t like the way this game’s going,” he said.

In the final inning, Delta Heat had one runner on base. Then there was an out. Another out. If one more player was tagged out, the game would be over.

Then, someone else got on base. The two players each moved up a base; Bailey was now up to bat.

The ball flew off the tips of Groenewegen’s fingers. Bailey hit it up the middle of the field — it skipped off the top of the short stop’s glove and went over to the right.

One runner scored; the game was tied 1-1. Then, the second runner made it home.

Houtman didn’t see the winning run. He was too busy shouting at Bailey to move faster: if the Renegades had gotten her out, the runs wouldn’t have counted.

She made it. The game ended 2-1 for Delta, and Houtman said “it was pandemonium.” The Delta girls were screaming and hugging; Houtman was jumping up and down on the first base line.

“Everybody I talked to said that was one of the greatest games they’d ever seen,” he said.

From the field of victory, Houtman scraped a small amount of dirt into a plastic vial. It now sits on a shelf in his self-described “man cave” along with a ball from the game and vials of dirt from other great moments in his coaching career.

According to Houtman, no one expected them to win. So how does an underdog team win provincials at the highest level of competition in minor softball?

He would probably say it was partly the players (10 out of the 12 girls on the team received softball scholarships), partly the coaching. And partly, it was because of Delta Heat, an association that merged North Delta and South Delta’s Rep A teams in 1993.

Without that merged association, he said, “we would have probably struggled along as a Ladner team, and they would have probably struggled along as a North Delta team.” They wouldn’t have had the success they did if they hadn’t been able to play together.

Delta Heat was the response to a growing pressure in Delta to stem the flow of players moving out of the individual Delta associations and towards “elite-level’ groups like the White Rock Renegades.

Now, Heat teams are a powerhouse in Canada and abroad. The 1996 and 1997 teams were back to back national champions, and many Delta Heat teams have made their mark in American tournaments.

Since 2011, at least six different associations have merged in Delta, primarily in team sports.

In 2011, the Tsawwassen and Ladner softball associations merged. In 2013, the North Delta and South Delta lacrosse associations joined to become the Delta Lacrosse Association. In 2016, Delta Heat and the North and South Delta softball associations became Delta Fastpitch.

Most recently, the North Delta and South Delta minor hockey associations looked at creating a united program for their top-level players, although this decision was later postponed for at least a year.

The proposal is somewhat different than mergers done by other associations: it would have expanded the boundaries of both rep teams rather than create a separate organization. Although the method is different, the impetus is the same: how can Delta stay competitive in team sports.

For Ken Priestlay, a coach with the South Delta Minor Hockey Association, merging is the best way to make this happen.

“You would have way stronger teams, at least numbers wise,” if associations merged, he said.  “Whenever you get a bigger number to choose from, the depth of your team … improves. It just does.

“But because we’re separate all the time, it’s a challenging time to get competitive teams always together.”

Chris Roper, the president of Delta Fastpitch, and Darcy Phillips, president of the Delta Lacrosse Association, agree. They both said that merging was the only option for their associations.

But mergers aren’t always easy, and next week we’ll look at the struggles associations face when the merge, as well as the reasons that make it worthwhile.

—With files from Tom Zillich