The New York Rise, Long Island’s new professional softball team, will play its first game on June 19. Newsday's Matt Lindsay reports. Credit: Newsday/Kendall Rodriguez

Women's professional softball is on the rise on Long Island.

One of four independent teams in the Association of Fastpitch Professionals (AFP), the New York Rise are set to play a 19-game regular season beginning June 19 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Rise, who will play its home games at Hofstra, are joined by the Oklahoma City Spark, Florida Vibe and Chattanooga Steam.

Rise founder Jeff Ahn, a Syosset resident and Port Washington native, has enjoyed watching college softball with his daughter, Josie, for years, but they noticed a problem. The Ahns would watch and follow college players for four years, and once they graduated, they never saw them again.

After about 15 months of building relationships and working with other teams, what was once a vision by Ahn, a 45-year-old senior vice president at a financial services firm in New York City, is ready to become reality. 

“When I look back at some of the heroes I had, they were Major League Baseball players. What I’d love for my daughter to have is professional softball players to look up to,” Ahn said at a recent workout at T2 Softball Academy in Farmingdale. “I can’t wait to bring this to life in New York.”

Ahn said he is  underwriting the effort to get the team started.

Some of Ahn’s most important relationships were made a few years ago at a Mets Fantasy Camp – a week-long experience at the Mets’ spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Florida, where participants are schooled on the fundamentals of baseball by former players and coaches.

When Ahn approached Mookie Wilson and Rodney "Crash" McCray with his vision years after he met them, both former Mets were overly supportive, so much so that Wilson joined the Rise’s executive committee and McCray signed as the team’s head coach.

Finding a pitching coach was easy, as Josie has taken pitching lessons with ToniMarie Valeriano, who owns T2 Softball Academy. Valeriano graduated from Mepham High School in 2014 before playing at Queens College. She was  a two-time Newsday All-Long Island selection and Nassau County pitcher of the year in 2013.

Valeriano said Ahn casually asked her after a lesson with Josie about being the pitching coach for a professional team.

“I was like, ‘You’re doing what?’ I instantly said yes, it was so exciting,” Valeriano said. “I have a few kids with Notre Dame, UNC and Clemson dreams, but not a lot of people talk about pro softball. Hopefully, I hear that from someone’s mouth now that we’re doing this.”

Then a star player presented herself to Ahn. Sarah Cornell graduated from Clarke High School in 2016 after being named Gatorade New York Softball player of the year. She spent two years at Hofstra, where she was named CAA Pitcher of the Year in 2018, before transferring to Alabama. Cornell was SEC pitcher of the year in 2019. The 2022 New York Softball Hall of Fame inductee played professionally for the Amsterdam Pirates in the Netherlands last year.

Cornell, 25, expressed interest in playing for the Rise and was brought in for a tryout.

“I saw their Instagram page and I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a New York professional softball team? I need to be on this team,’ ” said Cornell, who works as a groundskeeper at Citi Field for the Mets. “I wanted to be a New York native on the team and I was really proud to be back on the field.”

Cornell is joined by Sami Williams, Kayla Wedl, Linnie Malkin, Jailyn Ford and Chenise Delceas the only players currently on the roster, but Ahn expects to have a 16-player roster after the conclusion of the college season. Ahn said players will be under contract for the duration of the season and will be paid a seasonal base salary, with some getting a signing bonus.

“When I first started this thing, I was like, ‘Can I get any players to even talk to me?’ ” Ahn said. “Now my phone is ringing off the hook with people wanting a spot on the team.”

The AFP season will span six weeks, culminating in the Champion Cup Tournament July 23-28. Ahn hopes for additional teams and longer seasons in the future.

“I want to make sure there are more opportunities for people that can play and grow the sport,” Ahn said. “At some point, the end game is to be like the MLB and what the Mets can do for New York and have that type of fan base. But we’re taking baby steps.”

Ahn has been pushing to get Rise’s games picked up by a broadcast or streaming company. He has approached ESPN, which also broadcasts Athletes Unlimited’s two women’s pro softball seasons. For now, though, Rise games will stream for free on the team’s website.

As the first game approaches, the vision only becomes more real.

“It’s creeping up, we’re getting closer,” Valeriano said. “The other teams are posting things. We’re posting things. We’re signing players. I’m working with Sarah. It’s all really cool and I’m excited.”

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