CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) – This is the 4th year for the TaxAct Clearwater Invitational Softball Tournament, one of the premier softball events in the country. For several student-athletes, it’s a hometown event they’re proud to play in. 

“It’s really sentimental,” said Alabama outfielder Jordan Stephens, who went to Robinson High School. “I’ve always had a dream of playing college softball and I have a lot of memories – even warming up today I was thinking about you know I was 12 playing on these fields.”

“It’s awesome. Just getting off the plane at our home airport was such a great feeling,” said Duke pitcher and outfielder Claire Davidson, who played her junior and senior years at Lakewood Ranch High School. “The weather’s great. My dad’s so close by. It’s been awesome.”

“It was weird,” said Duke infielder Kamryn Jackson, who went to Sickles High School. “I went home yesterday with my family for dinner and seeing my dogs and just having all the family and friends here watching – a lot of supporters. It’s really exciting.”

Ten of the 16 teams in this tournament are ranked in the latest USA softball Top 25 Poll, bringing the national softball spotlight to the Bay Area — a place where the talent pool for this sport has grown even more in recent years. 

“There is elite softball all around this area and it’s nice to see that now we’re bringing in an elite collegiate tournament to make a difference,” said two-time Olympic gold medalist and softball commentator Michele Smith, who played a major role in starting this event in 2019. “The amount of marketing that goes into this and the reach that it has even beyond this tournament throughout the collegiate softball season is far-reaching and it’s great promotion for Pinellas County.”

The growth of the tournament itself is also an indication of how softball continues to ascend in visibility.

“I remember I came and watched in 2020 right before COVID hit,” Stephens said. “It was packed then but it’s nothing compared to what this tournament is now. There’s people everywhere. It’s just a really fun environment– especially being at Alabama in the SEC and stuff – all of our games are televised. I love where the sport is going and I think there’s just such a great market for it and it’s really inspiring to see how many people support us.”

“It’s so crazy,” Davidson said. “Even just being here and seeing how many people are here. It’s been sold out for weeks. It’s just awesome to see how much the sport has grown.”