AFL might be the highest-profile sport in remote Indigenous communities, but no community in Central Australia is complete without a softball diamond.
“Older women pass it on from generation to generation,” said Nicky Bacon, chief executive of Softball NT.
“We are trying to work out how it got introduced — it’s been in communities for decades.
“And they are experts; these girls will pull us up on obscure rules.
“AFL absolutely steals the spotlight, but softball is really big out there — we aren’t a loud voice, but we’ve got some really powerful girls out there that play incredibly well.”
Teresa Stevens, from the Nyapari community in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia, has been playing softball since she was 16 and coaching in the APY Lands for 28 years.
“Coaching these girls, you see a different side of them, they become confident, learn responsibility,” she said.
“They learn the softball rules, learn how to play, learn how to communicate.”
Regina Lankin, 20, from Hermannsburg, has been playing the game for half of her life and said she liked being catcher.
“It’s a strategic spot; you need to have teamwork, talking to the pitcher, making them confident and comfortable. That’s how you win: teamwork and talking,” she said.
“It’s just so much fun and something to do together, to get better at.”
Sport returns to heartland
Despite the importance of softball to Central Australia, 2019 was the first time in 18 years that the NT softball championships had been held in Alice Springs rather than Darwin.
It was a move Softball NT had been lobbying to make for a few years, however field conditions had made it unviable.
“Central Australia is really the heartland of our sport, and the hub is Alice Springs,” Ms Bacon said.
But following turf upgrades by the town council, hundreds of players made the journey to Alice Springs for the competition.
“It’s opened the competition up to so many more people and communities — we have girls here from the APY Lands and remote communities all over the region,” Ms Bacon said.
Despite strong family, language and administrative connections to the Northern Territory, it was the first time young women from the APY Lands were able to join the NT competition because of their distance from Darwin.
“We go each year to championships in Adelaide, but this is better — more family connections here, it’s closer, more community teams,” Ms Stevens said.
APY Thunder team manager Shardina Tunkin grew up in the APY Lands and has been playing for 10 years.
“Softball taught me about teamwork,” she said.
“Everyone gets together and supports each other, we all cheer each other on.
“But it’s also a great way to meet girls from other communities, we always have a chat when the game finishes.”
The 24-year-old said she liked fielding at first base “because you always get to catch the ball on first base”.
Maria Campbell from Mimili in the APY Lands has played softball since she was young.
“Everyone should know well that us young girls get into [softball], it’s a big part of our life,” she said.
“This is the first time coming to Alice Springs … I think it’s awesome, playing on the grass — it’s very different from the dirt we usually play on.
“It feels good to get out and practice, talk about it and play, talk about strategies, doing the training, having something to look forward to, that I want to get better at.”