Published 6:15 pm Wednesday, July 16, 2008

When a small group of people founded the Freedom Fastpitch program in 2001, the goal was to provide local girls the opportunity to keep up with their peers by playing travel softball.

Freedom has done that and continues to do so, though the Freedom teams now look to win – and win big.

For the first time, three Freedom teams will have the opportunity to win big when they visit Panama City Beach, Fla., for the United States Fastpitch Association’s World Series.

“Our level of play has gotten better and better,” said Rodney Smitherman, one of four people that have been involved in the program since its beginning. “We’ve had teams [in the World Series] before, but to have three teams there – and think that they’ll do well – that’s the first time that’s happened.

“We’d like for it to happen every year.”

Freedom looks well on its way to that point. The program, which was named in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, could be stable after experiencing its share of ups and downs.

There was the National Softball Association state title in 2006, the 16th-place finish out of 98 teams in the USFA World Series in Chattanooga in 2005 and numerous tournament championships, but there was also the time two years ago when Freedom fielded only one team. Freedom now has a core group of athletes in each age group, coaches committed to their improvement and the possibility of adding a fourth team next year.

Freedom also still has the people that have been there since the beginning: Smitherman, who coaches the 14-and-under team; Doug Matthews, who coaches the 16-and-under team; and their daughters, Brooke Smitherman and Meliah Matthews, both of whom play on the most senior team.

Doug Matthews said the most important aspect of the program is that it prepares its participants to play at the next level.

“We’ve kind of gone from teaching them how to throw to getting them in college,” he said.

Maybe there will be a World Series championship somewhere in between.