Aug. 8, 2013
A trio of former University of Michigan All-Americans is spending the summer playing in the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league, the only domestic opportunity to play professional softball. Many leagues have come and gone over the past two generations, but the NPF has now survived for a decade and continues to fight for attention and air time in a crowded entertainment marketplace. MGoBlue.com caught up with the three players -- Dorian Shaw, Jordan Taylor and Nikki Nemitz -- to learn about life as a professional softball player. We will feature one player's story a week over the next three weeks leading up to the NPF playoffs.
By Michael Kasiborski
Dorian Shaw is getting ready for a birthday party. She just left the mall near Montclair State University, where she is living this summer with some bags in tow. It is just a little slice of life into this 24-year-old's busy day, all while adjusting to a new city, a new job and trying to squeeze in a little time for socializing. For Shaw, it's all part of a juggling act that fills her days as a professional softball player and a second-year college coach.
She returned to the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league this season after a one-year hiatus and is playing for a club in its inaugural season in the four-team league, the NY/NJ Comets.
"When we do have an off day, we'll hit for an hour or so and then hit the mall," says Shaw chuckling.
She's laughing because the mall is a brief -- and rare -- respite from her days filled with the demands of playing in a league with 80 of the best softball players in the country and of keeping up with her coaching duties at George Mason University. Shaw will begin her second season at George Mason in the fall, but couldn't pass up a shot to keep playing during the summer.
Shaw slugged her way into the hearts of Michigan fans from 2008-11, smacking 58 career home runs and earning All-America honors as a junior. She was drafted by the Chicago Bandits with the fourth overall selection in the 2011 Senior Draft. She won the 2011 NPF championship with the Chicago Bandits that year as a rookie, but she'll tell you she didn't play as well as she wanted to. She took a year off, landed her coaching gig at George Mason but could not quell the desire to keep playing -- and perhaps prove something to herself that she felt was missing from her debut season.
"The Comets were willing to pick me up, and I'm trying to do my best here," says Shaw. "It's gratifying to get to play with people you've known for all these years and grow the community of (softball)."
Shaw and her Comets teammates are the poster children for trying to grow the sport. The first-year club plays in a quartet of different "home stadiums" in an effort to get in front of more potential fans in the New York metro area.
"It's different than the other teams, we don't have a home locker room," says Shaw. "So it's new and different playing in four home stadiums."
The team practices at Rutgers and splits its home games at Provident Bank Park Stadium in Pomona, N.Y., Yogi Berra Stadium in Montclair, N.J., TD Bank Pallpark in Bridgewater, N.J., and Coca Cola Park Stadium in Allentown, Pa.
"Everybody gets a chance to see us," she says. "A first-year team needs that."
Part of playing in the NPF, a league celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2013, is playing the part of an ambassador no matter how long your team has been in the league. Shaw and her teammates regularly make appearances in the community and do a lot of outreach to publicize the Comets and professional softball.
It's a mission Shaw shares with the few dozen other players collecting paychecks for their exciting part-time jobs. She says the players on the Comets regularly talk about ways to keep the NPF on solid footing and help expand it and improve it. The Comets organization took its name from the Kenosha Comets of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League -- the World War II era league that was immortalized in the movie "A League of their Own." The 2013 Comets is an organization with a sense of history trying to make history by trailblazing professional softball in the northeast.
"If you're expecting thousands of people at your games and a huge paycheck, that's not going to happen," says Shaw. "But the women in this league are giving their time and energy to make this league better."
On any summer weekend she may be playing against the Bandits or the Racers or the Pride, but she says the experience can transcend the uniform you're wearing in a given game.
"The most humbling part is meeting people that you've played against or watched for years, and they are such great people -- and they are way better than you thought," she says. "It's all about growing the sport and growing the league."
When Shaw isn't donning her Comets uniform, she's pulling on her other one -- as the assistant coach at George Mason University -- and still serving the sport. During downtime with the Comets, she's fulfilling her duties with the Patriots by recruiting and honing her approach for her second full season on the George Mason campus in Fairfax, Va., less than 10 miles from where she grew up in Burke, Va.
Wolverines fans will recall Shaw's sturdy first baseman's mitt while turning in a solid .982 fielding percentage during her four years guarding the right side of the infield, but with the Patriots she is spending the bulk of her time with the outfielders.
"I had some knowledge about what (Michigan associate head coach) Bonnie (Tholl) said to our outfielders when I was at Michigan. I would think about what she said and repeat it to my outfielders this year," she says, laughing about the lessons she lifted from Tholl.
But Shaw soon stopped parroting Michigan's associate head coach and dug into her own research to refine her teaching methods.
"Once you stop learning, you stop playing," she says. "I know a lot more about the game now that I'm coaching, and I'm learning about how the game is run and managed."
She says coaching has made her more tranquil and has given her perspective about approaching the game.
"I wasn't very patient as a (collegiate) player. I'm more realistic now; I can step back and take a look at the big picture (as a coach)."
Her patience is paying off in the batter's box where she already has more at-bats this season than in 2011 with several weeks still to go. And she recently slugged a home run during a nationally televised game on ESPN2 on July 20.
That exposure on TV is pivotal for Shaw, the Comets and the NPF. Sixteen games during the 2013 season were scheduled to air on the ESPN family of networks, a platform that has helped grow the college softball game and especially the Women's College World Series over the past decade.
"Being televised is huge," says Shaw. "When you hear someone talk about your team, it's very gratifying. We were in Panera the other day in Akron, and someone asked if we were in town to play the Racers. And it was great to know they recognized the Comets t-shirt."
No matter how much success she finds in the NPF or in her coaching career, Shaw will long be recognized as a Wolverine, something she does not shy away from.
"I had the best time of my life at Michigan. I loved my coaches and loved my experience. It left a very positive impact on my life, and I wanted to keep playing and stay around softball because of it."
From her days slugging home runs and racking up academic awards at U-M -- including three straight Academic All-Big Ten honors from 2009-11 -- she has been able to find time to do it all. So it's really no surprise that Dorian Shaw is still playing and is now coaching, and even fitting in a little time for the mall.
"I was blessed to play in a program that I loved and that helped propel me to continue to want to play. It's a blessing to be able to do what I've been able to do."
You can follow Shaw on Twitter @DorianS224
The Comets play at the USSSA Pride on Friday (Aug. 9) and a doubleheader on Saturday (Aug. 10).