As Major League Baseball opens its 2012 season today, the Azerbaijan Interregional Softball League (AISL) is less than two months away from its own opening day on May 20th. Entering its seventh season, the AISL will field 16 teams, its largest number to date. With the weather having grown more and more pleasant, many teams have begun spring training. More than 200 Azeri boys and girls have started shaking off the off-season rust and taking fly balls, ground balls, and batting practice in preparation for the first tournament of the spring. As the Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) coaches continue to motivate and the Azerbaijani players continue to sharpen their skills, the question is, who will emerge as this year’s champion?
With the rapid growth of softball in Azerbaijan, the AISL has taken on a new structure this season. The 16-team league has been splint into five regional divisions: the West Division of Tovuz, Ganja, Mingechevir, and Goranboy, the Caucusus Division of Balaken, Danachi (Zagatala), Oguz, and Yevlakh, the Central Division of Ismayilli, Goychay, and Kurdemir, the North Division of Khachmaz and Guba, and the South Division of Bilesuvar, Saatli, and Lenkeran. Each team will compete in 16 games over six Sunday tournaments (three in the spring and three in the fall), vying to bring home a divisional title. At the end of the regular season, the five divisional champions, plus three wildcard teams, will compete for the first ever AISL National Championship!
As in any sports league, the AISL field is full of favorites, dark horses, and up-and-comers. With the only undefeated record last year, Bilesuvar is the pre-season favorite to take home the prize. Practicing three days a week throughout the off-season while northern teams had to wait out the snow should only prove to give the boys from the south a greater advantage. However, perennial powerhouses Mingechevir and Tovuz cannot be discounted, as each team returns a solid corps of experienced ball players this season. They will definitely give Bilesuvar a good run for its money.
While these three teams certainly are the most experienced, by no means does it mean that they are the only three that will compete for a title. Ganja is another very experienced ball club that can certainly hang with the best of them. With a year of play under their belts, teams such as Balaken, Danachi, Ismayilli, Kurdemir, Goychay, Khachmaz, and Goranboy will be looking to show the league just how much they have improved since the end of last season. Also, the boys and girls from Oguz, under the coaching prowess of league Commissioner Kevin Kravitz, made huge strides in their first year of play last season. With its corps of players back this season, Oguz is looking to take the next step: becoming an elite team that competes for the championship.
This year also will see the birth of four new ball clubs in Saatli, Lenkeran, Guba, and Yevlakh. With practices having just begun, these young squads are in the initial stages of learning the rules and skills of the game. Having nearly two months to prepare for Opening Day, however, there is no doubt that under the direction of their wonderful PCV coaches, each of these teams will be ready to compete on day one. And who knows? One of these up-and-coming ball clubs may shock the world, knocking off the AISL powerhouses and bringing home the gold. On any given Sunday, anything is possible.
Of course, the AISL is not all about who wins and loses; it never has been and never will be. From its inception, the goals of the Azerbaijani Interregional Softball League have been to promote healthy lifestyles, teamwork, sportsmanship, self-discipline, respect, friendship, and gender relations. These goals are carried out at every practice, as the PCVs in Azerbaijan continue working with their individual community’s youth to not only make them better ball players, but, more importantly, make them better people.
The AISL is also on the continued path to sustainability. For the first time ever, a league team (Goranboy) will be led by a non-PCV coach. With this huge step, Goranboy is paving the way for future teams to be run by locals, allowing Azerbaijan to one day fully take control of the league. Additionally, in this “year of sports” (as declared by Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev), the AISL is beginning to develop relationships with Azerbaijani businesses and organizations in hopes of establishing long-lasting partnerships. In its current state, however, the AISL is relying on the kind donations from friends and family of PCVs back in the United States. With a simple, tax deductible donation, you will be helping a nation’s youth to continue playing the game they love. Visit our donation page at: https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=314-091
Please help us today so that the youth of Azerbaijan can play ball tomorrow!