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Tri-City Thunder Finishes Great 16 Year Run By Capturing Olean Synergy Championship (08/03/19)

(Photos submitted) Above: Tri-City Thunder 18U, winners of the Olean, NY Synergy Tournament Champions: Front (L-R) Marissa Grubbs (Sheffield), Emily Finley (Titusville), Kaylyn Fry (Franklin), Lydia Peterson (Rocky Grove). Middle (L-R) Lindsey Kemp (Titusville), Jocelyn Koziara (South Carolina, daughter of Mike Koziara, grandaughter of Dave & Sandy Koziara of Franklin), Becca Kunselman (New Bethlehem), Gracie Stryffeler (Franklin), Amber Scott (Titusville), Kaitlyn Constantino (Clarion), McKenna Houck (Titusville). Back (L-R) Coaches Ed Winger & Greg Houck

The Tri-City Thunder 18U girls softball team finished out the 2019 season and sixteen great years of program history, by capturing the Olean Synergy Tournament on Sunday, July 21st.

The Thunder did a great job in capturing the tournament with an 8-0 win over the Lewistown Lady Patriots in the championship game. They downed Fury 6-5 in the quarterfinals and Olean Synergy 7-1 in the semifinals earlier in the day.

The Thunder came out of pool play on Saturday, as the number one seed after defeating Synergy 5-0 and the Lady Patriots 6-5 and then tying Hamburg (NY) 2-2.

2014 Mid Summer’s Bash Champions: Tri-City Thunder – Front Row (L-R) McKenna Houck (Titusville), Taylor Kerr (Titusville), Kaitlyn Constantino – Clarion; Lydia Peterson (Franklin), and Kaylyn Fry (Franklin). Back Row (L-R) Manager Greg Houck, Gracie Stryffeler (Franklin), Miranda Beichner (Cranberry), Paige Whitehair (Titusville), Lindsey Kemp (Titusville), and Coach Dave Stryffeler.

Highlights from the tournament are listed at the end of the article. But for the bulk of this article, I’d like to share some of the great history of this fine Tri-City Thunder organization, which lasted so many years, helping guide many young ladies in the disciplines of fast pitch softball and in life.

(The information in this article is courtesy of coach Ed Winger and Ed Brannon,Sports editor of the Oil City Derrick, who graciously allowed Clarion Sports Zone use information from an article he did on the Thunder some years ago.)

Rochester – Flower City Tournament – Thunder 16U

Tri-City Thunder was established in 2004 by Ed Winger, longtime Franklin High School head coach, who has coached for the entirety of the Thunder program and Jim Becker of who was head coach at Titusville, for fifteen years.

Winger said, “Originally it was designed as a ‘feeder program’ for local high schools for skill development at all age levels in highly competitive fastpitch tournament softball.

“Thunder was established as a non-profit organization with a Board of Directors consisting of Jim, Tom Wice, myself and parents of players who contributed skills for officer positions and organizational decisions.”

With the large scope of the program, financial considerations were very important. Winger said, “Our start included a grant from the Samuel and Edith Justus Charitable Trust in Oil City and the Henne Rees Trust of Titusville which enabled us to buy uniforms, catchers’ gear and other softball equipment.

Rochester – Flower City Tournament – Thunder 16U

“Financing the organization initially included business sponsors. The Board then established the annual Tri-City Thunder Memorial Day Weekend Tournament held at the Ed Myer Complex in Titusville.” 

An army of volunteers was needed for the success of the event. “The tournament was organized and run by a group of dedicated and energetic parents and friends, some of whom had no daughters in Thunder or whose daughters no longer played for a Thunder team.

“Funds raised from the tournament helped pay for yearly player registrations, insurance, sanctioning fees, tournament registration fees, equipment replacement and yearly supplies. The Thunder tournament also served to keep player entry fees to a minimum.”

2011 Softball in the Hills Tournament – Thunder 16U

Winger singled out a man who can best be described as an absolute softball legend around this area, as a player, coach and contributor, the late Arnie Weaver. “A special ‘Thank You’ goes out to Arnie Weaver, well known as ‘Mr Softball’, who spent many hours prior to each Memorial Weekend tournament preparing fields with his only motivation being to help friends!”

And praise for some others. “Another fantastic group was the “Woo Hoo Crew”, volunteers who were in charge of dragging, lining and maintaining all fields between each and every game. The last tournament sponsored by Thunder was held in 2016.”

“Jim, Tom and I set up teams with input from coaches selected because of their initiative, willingness to learn and teach the game and ability to promote the positive philosophy established at the start of the program.  Team age groups included 10u, 12u, 14u, 16u and occasionally 18u girls teams.”

2014 Tri-City team pictured are, front row, from left: Lydia Peterson, Kaitlyn Constantino, Taylor Kerr, Kaylyn Fry, and McKenna Houck. Second row: Lindsey Kemp, Gracie Stryffeler, Paige Whitehair, Miranda Beichner, and Amber Brown. Last row: Manager Greg Houck and Coach Dave Stryffeler.

In the Derrick article, Winger mentioned, “A lot of what we were looking for (in the players) was based on drive and ability, but most importantly, we wanted girls with the personality to interact well with their teammates.” Brannon quoted Becker on the selection of the players, “We want the younger kids to look up to the older kids and emulate their dedication and abilities. In return, we want our older kids to provide encouragement and leadership for the younger kids.”

Tri-City Thunder 2014 12U Softball Team (Front L-R) Lydia Peterson, Kaylyn Fry, Taylor Kerr, McKenna Houck, and Kaitlyn Constantino (Back L-R) Gracie Stryffeler, Amber Scott, Lindsey Kemp, Paige Whitehair, and Miranda Beichner

The program was originally set up, for girls from Oil City, Franklin and Titusville. But the word of the teams success spread and parents from other areas inquired about their daughters joining.

Winger mentioned that, “Over 400 girls of various ages have played on Thunder teams over the years.  Although the Thunder organization did not ‘recruit’ players, word of mouth brought girls from areas outside the initial Titusville, Franklin, Oil City region. At last count girls from over 25 school districts have played on Thunder teams.

2018 IUP Showcase Tournament champions, Tri-City Thunder: Kaylynn Fry (Franklin), Marissa Grubbs (Sheffield), Lydia Peterson (Rocky Grove), Becca Kunselman (Redbank Valley), Lindsey Kemp (Titusville), Amber Scott (Titusville), McKenna Houck (Titusville), Gracie Stryffeler (Franklin), Kaitlyn Constantino (Clarion), Emily Finley (Titusville), and Kelsey Stuart (Warren). Missing: Emily Finley and Kelsey Stuart.

The organization has worked with a number of girls from around our area over the years. Some of those players are: Alyssa Shirey, Redbank; Alaina Kunselman, Redbank; Lindsay Jones, Redbank; Brittany Hildebrand, Redbank; Andy Selker, Lucinda; Krysta Fuller, Clarion-Limestone, Clarion; Kaitlyn Constantino (member of final team), Clarion; Morgan Toth, Redbank; Montana Hetrick, Redbank; Carly McManigle, Brookville; Maycee Shumaker, Redbank; Becca Kunselman (member of last team), Redbank; Karlie Hoffman, Emlenton; Kaia Rearick, Redbank; Katie Cozad, Keystone.

Winger mentioned that most of the area players are from Redbank Valley, “because of my connection there with winter pitching clinics set up by (Redbank Valley coach John Sayers.  The first from Redbank was Alyssa Shirey, who went on to play in the Division II College World Series two times. He continued, “Of course… Krysta, who pitched for Clarion in the PIAA state championship game a few years ago.  And also….Kait!   Alaina played at Grove City College and now teaches and coaches MS Softball at Lakeview school district.” 

Some of the other schools represented by players included Cranberry, Harborcreek, Mercyhurst Prep, Maplewood, Redbank Valley, Warren and Venango Catholic, as well as players from colleges such as Robert Morris, Seton Hill, Columbia Union and Thiel.

Following are some quotes (in there entirety) by two of the fathers who coached for the Thunder and their daughters, Dave and Kaitlyn (Kait) Constantino who were involved for several years and members of the final team and Ed and Brooke Brannon who were involved earlier on.

Dave Constantino: Kaitlyn started with Tri-City in the spring of 2014 (with the 12U team) and played the following six travel seasons with the Thunder (including this year’s 18U team).  During that six year span Tri-City won 13 tournaments and finished runners-up another 8 times.  They played in tournaments in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia , and New York over that 6 year period.  She played for a number of Thunder coaches over the last 6 years who she respected a great deal including Ed Winger, Greg Houck, Dave Stryffeler, and myself.

We loved being a part of the Thunder family.  The families really developed a strong bond with one another.  We had just as much fun at the hotels and restaurants as we did at the tournaments.  The girls really enjoyed playing together and spending most of their summers together.  They would stay up late at the hotels playing cards, playing volleyball, or engaging in some kind of fun activity.  The girls and families were able to develop life-long friendships with each other.

Kait: I really enjoyed my time playing for the Tri-City Thunder.  The coaches were more concerned about us as people rather than just winning tournaments.  They taught us fundamental skills to become better softball players.  I loved playing with my softball “sisters” and just enjoyed traveling throughout the summer and having fun in neighboring cities and states.  We would look forward to staying up late and playing cards in the hotel lobbies or any activity we could find.  I made a lot of friendships over the years that I truly do cherish.”

Ed Brannon: My daughter began playing softball at age 10 in the Cranberry Girls Softball Association, which was a modified-pitch league that consisted of three age groups. After two seasons and through my associations with coach Becker and coach Winger, I learned they were hoping to expand Tri-City Thunder and include a number of age groups where the girls would be playing fastpitch in tournaments all over the Tri-state area. This was especially appealing to me because that was the kind of pitching that my daughter and others at Cranberry would need to see BEFORE they reached the varsity and junior varsity levels.

A number of Cranberry girls made the switch and really started a long and successful program at the high school level.

It truly was a blessing that Ed and Jim came along at the right time and give so many girls the chance to experience the game at such a higher level. Their dedication and passion for softball touched many over these many years and it’s bittersweet to see it come to an end.

I was fortunate to work to players from all over and it was so rewarding to see them grow and improve from year to year. 

Brooke Brannon: I started with Tri-City Thunder when I was 12 years old up until I was 17. Since then, 10 years have passed by and looking back now, those were some of the best years of my life. We experienced traveling to new places, building lifelong friendships with girls who I never would’ve had the chance to meet, teamwork, positive attitudes and sportsmanship.

Also, a lot of us girls had the opportunity to have our fathers as coaches We spent hours together as family, between practices and tournament weekends. Those memories will always be cherished and never forgotten.

(Dave has taught at Clarion Area for a number of years and coached various sports at Clarion Area School District and other youth sports in the area. Kait will be a senior at Clarion Area in the fall. She also participates in volleyball and basketball.

Ed, as mentioned above, is the Sports Editor for the Derrick. He played baseball at Pitt and was an All-American in both slow pitch and modified pitch softball. Brooke played at and graduated from Cranberry High School, graduating in 2010. She had offers for softball and golf from Clarion University, but attended Venango Campus where she earned a degree in Radiologic Technology (x-ray technician). She lives in Dallas and is employed by Baylor University Medical Center.)

As can be easily seen, it took much community and corporate involvement for the organization to be the great success that it has been. The love of coaches and others involved for the players and vice versa, and everyone catching on to the vision was essential. Mission Accomplished, Thunder!!!!

“Thunder teams have been represented in fastpitch travel tournaments in cities as far away as Cleveland, Columbus, Morgantown, York, Rochester, Buffalo and Erie, and all areas within that reach.

Coach Winger said, “The success of the Thunder organization on the field is reflected by the success of Thunder teams which have either won championships, participated in the championship or semi-final games of tournaments over 100 times in all those cities.”

Coach Winger’s love and respect can for his players and all involved with the program over the years. “Thunder played in 5 tournaments this summer, this being the last of the summer and the final of the Tri-City Thunder era. 

“Thunder was established in 2004. It’s the end of the organization. Sad in a way, but some of the best softball and best times of our lives – for me, players, Thunder coaches, families and those watching from the sidelines.

“This was our final tournament for the organization. It has been an honor to coach all of them!  

“The sixteen years of Tri-City Thunder have been a wonderful run of exciting times, lasting friendships, personal development, priceless memories and tremendous success in the lives of many, many young ladies!  Thank you to everyone who contributed in any way to this wonderful organization!”

As can be easily seen, it took much community and corporate involvement for the organization to be the great success that it has been. The love of coaches and others involved for the players and vice versa, and everyone catching on to the vision was essential. Mission Accomplished, Thunder!!!!

(Special thanks go out to Kim Constantino for all her great photos over the years. And thank you to all who contributed to this article.)

Some of the Thunder 18U highlights from the 2019 Olean Synergy Tournament:

Pool Play Saturday, July 20th

Tri-City Thunder 5 – Olean Synergy 0: Kait Constantino and Gracie Stryffler combined for 9 strikeouts in one hitter. Kait doubled and singled, Gracie singled and drove in two runs. Kaylyn Fry and Becca Kunselman each singles and drove in a run. Lydia Peterson singled and scored a run.

Tri-City Thunder 6 – Lewistown Lady Patriots 5 – Kaylyn homered, drove in three runs and scored once. Kait and Gracie combined for the win.

Tri-County Thunder 2 – Hamburg (NY) Extreme 2 (Tie) – Kait struck out twelve batters. Amber Scott had a pair of hits and drove in a run. McKenna Houk drove in a run and Kaylyn doubled.

Action On Sunday, July 21st

Tri-City Thunder 6 – Fury 5 (quarterfinal) – Kaylyn had two hits, two RBIs and scored once. Gracie and McKenna each singled, drove in a run and scored once. Gracie and Kait combined for the win.

Tri-City Thunder 7 – Olean Synergy 1 (semifinal) – Kait had a three-hitter, striking out six. Becca singled and drove in a pair of runs. Gracie had two hits, drove in a run and scored a run. McKenna singled, drove in a run ans scored a run, as did Emily Finley.

Tri-City Thunder 8 – Lewistown Lady Patriots 0 – Jocelyn Koziera had three hits, one RBI and scored a run. McKenna drove in a pair of runs and scored once. Gracie singled, drove in a run and scored once. Kaylyn doubled and drove in a pair of runs. Kait singled and had two RBIs and threw five strikeouts.

Kait and Kaylyn were named tournament Co-MVPs.