In the early evening when driving east into Wausau on Hwy. 29, you’ll notice the distinct glow of lights to the south of the roadway in spring and summer. The lights aren’t from the businesses in the Industrial Park; instead, they're shining over the five softball fields of Sunnyvale Sports Complex. There, on any given night of the week, dozens of people gather eating popcorn, sipping beer, and cheering on their team.
The athletes on the field aren't in Little League. They're adults, ranging in age from older teens to men and women in their 60s. Some play for bragging rights; some play for fun.
Others, like Nate Helke, play for a love of the game, and as a way to stay connected with family. His brother, Casey Helke, plays on the same team, and until three years ago, his father, Gary Helke, also joined in.
"It's really a family sport, " Nate Helke says. "On the field, there are a lot of teams with two, sometimes three generations of players. It's a great way to spend time together."
Softball has been a favorite pastime in the Wausau area for decades. In the early years, league play was operated by the YMCA, but in 1967, the organization announced it would discontinue softball operations, much to the dismay of hundreds of ball players. One of those players, former Gov. Tony Earl, was then Wausau's city attorney. Earl and a committee of 10 worked to keep the sport alive, and on April 11, 1968, the Wausau Area Softball Association was born.
Unlike golf, skiing, biking or many other recreational activities, softball is a team sport. "You can’t just decide on some Saturday afternoon that you want to go out and play ball," says Nate Helke, director of WASA’s fast pitch league. "It requires a little more organization than other activities."
While adults often hunt for sports leagues and activities for their children, fewer today are taking the time to seek out sports opportunities themselves. In 1984, WASA's most successful year, there were nearly 5,000 players on 287 teams. Since then, the numbers have steadily declined. In 2015, about 1,500 players competed on 112 separate teams.
"People are busier than they used to be," Nate Helke says. "And some people don't know these teams even exist."
The softball season ends in late summer, and takes new team registrations beginning in March. Teams pay $45 per person for fast pitch and $40 per person for slow pitch to cover the entire season. The fees help pay for the field, which WASA leases from the parks department each year. Players who aren't already on a team can also sign up as a free agent. Find details on the group's Facebook page.
WASA also can start new adult sports leagues if enough people are interested, Helke says, such as kickball, horseshoes, and other varieties of softball.
Other adult competitive sports around Wausau
Pickleball: A racquet sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis. Two, three, or four players use solid paddles made of wood or composite materials to hit a perforated polymer ball, similar to a wiffle ball, over a net. The Greater Wausau Area Pickleball League plays at Marathon Park, and the YMCA hosts adult league play throughout the year. Individual lessons are also available at the YMCA.
Bike polo: Think polo, but substitute a bike for the horse. Wausau's Bike Polo Club has a new field, after parks officials converted an underused parking lot in Riverside Park to a bike polo arena. Find Wausau Bike Polo on Facebook.
Curling: Membership in the Wausau Curling Club is growing by leaps and bounds since the new curling center opened to much fanfare. New players are welcome. Watch for upcoming "Learn to Curl" sessions for newcomers. Info at wausaucurling.org or call 715-842-3614.
Flag football: The Wausau Flag Football league is a 5 vs. 5 adult league that plays a 10-week season each fall at Wiggly Field in Schofield. A number of local bars sponsor teams. Find Wausau Flag Football on Facebook.
Volleyball: Wiggly Field in Schofield hosts team play all year round—indoors for fall and winter, and outdoor sand volleyball in summer. Sign up a few months in advance. Wiggly also offers coed softball. Watch for announcements on Wiggly Field’s Facebook page.
Co-ed indoor wiffle ball: Premier Sports Academy on West Stewart Avenue in Wausau hosts adult leagues on Thursday nights from mid September to late October. Each team must have at least two players of each gender on the field with a maximum five total players. For information, visit premiersportsacademy.org or call 715-298-9770.
Soccer: Male and female soccer players age 16 and older can play indoor adult soccer at Premier Sports Academy. Teams of five can register by calling 715-298-9770. Season begins Oct. 1.
Disc Golf: Also called Frisbee golf, a game in which a Frisbee is thrown into each of a series of metal baskets on an outdoor course. The object is to complete the course using the fewest possible throws. Find Wausau Area Disc Golf Enthusiasts on Facebook.
Basketball: Adults can join a pickup basketball game during the lunch hour. Games are at noon Monday through Friday at the YMCA, which also hosts an 8-week winter basketball league. Call 715-845-2177 for details.
Speed skating: Wisconsin Speed Skating Club is free to try, with opportunities to compete at local and national levels. All ages are welcome. The group holds practices most Sundays from October through March. See wausauspeedskating.com.
Downhill ski racing: In addition to timed youth skiing competition, the Granite Peak Ski Team also has a Wednesday adult race league. Participants may qualify for the Midwest League Championship Race. See gpst.org for details.