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Jennie Finch Classic highlights softball's rise

MLB.com

WASHINGTON -- Eliza Crawford is a coach for the New Orleans Youth Academy. She grew up in Long Beach, Calif., and played softball at Cal State Fullerton -- areas where baseball and softball are popular.

Crawford and the New Orleans Youth Academy are participating in the Jennie Finch Classic leading up to the 89th MLB All-Star Game presented by Mastercard on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX. The tournament takes place in Washington, D.C., and consists of eight teams of women ages 17 and under from MLB Youth Academies. The event is named after Olympic Gold Medal winner Jennie Finch, who is the MLB youth softball ambassador. Tournament participants will also attend All-Star Week events, including the T-Mobile Home Run Derby on Monday night.

WASHINGTON -- Eliza Crawford is a coach for the New Orleans Youth Academy. She grew up in Long Beach, Calif., and played softball at Cal State Fullerton -- areas where baseball and softball are popular.

Crawford and the New Orleans Youth Academy are participating in the Jennie Finch Classic leading up to the 89th MLB All-Star Game presented by Mastercard on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX. The tournament takes place in Washington, D.C., and consists of eight teams of women ages 17 and under from MLB Youth Academies. The event is named after Olympic Gold Medal winner Jennie Finch, who is the MLB youth softball ambassador. Tournament participants will also attend All-Star Week events, including the T-Mobile Home Run Derby on Monday night.

:: Complete All-Star Game coverage ::

Crawford embarked on a new challenge this past year when she moved to New Orleans and recruited women to join the city's Youth Academy. None of New Orleans' eight surrounding colleges have softball programs, so women growing up in the area don't experience much exposure to the sport. Most women participate in basketball and volleyball, Crawford said.

The New Orleans Youth Academy, however, has provided opportunities and resources for women to learn and play softball since it opened in 2012. Over the past year and a half, the academy's membership has increased by 15 percent.

"A lot of people don't know what we have because of New Orleans and it's so small, so when they come to the facility, they're like, 'Oh wow, if I would've known about this years ago, this would've changed,'" said Crawford, who works in the softball division of MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program. "Just spreading the word basically, because as soon as word of mouth comes, the more trickles in."

Alexa Poche, a member of the New Orleans Youth Academy, was one of the lone athletes at her school playing softball. While Poche said football and basketball are the most popular sports in Louisiana, her father and brother played baseball, so she played with them before she began travel softball at about 7 years old.

While Crawford idolized softball players from an array of college programs in Southern California, Poche couldn't watch as much softball.

The nearest college softball programs from New Orleans are at Nicholls State University and Louisiana State University, both of which are about an hour and a half drive from the city. Poche said she attended LSU softball games with her dad growing up.

Poche looks up to players she's met through travel softball, such as USA Softball infielder Kelsey Stewart, who attended the University of Florida, Poche's dream school.

Hurricane Katrina also destroyed softball facilities and resources in 2005. Many families moved to Texas because of their living situations. But the New Orleans Youth Academy has served as a new softball facility.

"[The academy] was actually rebuilt after Katrina," Poche said. "That was actually the biggest upside for softball that we got that in return."

Earlier this year, New Orleans Youth Academy members participated in softball clinics run by Finch and A.J. Andrews, the first woman to receive a Rawlings Gold Glove Award in 2016. Plus, some of the academy's coaches, including Crawford, played Division I softball.

Crawford's goal is to involve more talented softball players, like Finch and Andrews, to increase the sport's interest and participation in New Orleans.

"It's easier for [youth players] to see like, 'OK, this is possible for me. I can do it,'" Crawford said of learning from veterans. "It gives them really something to motivate them and something to look forward to."

Softball
Game 1 at GWU - Compton 12, Houston 2
Game 2 at GWU - Phillies 13, Houston 0
Game 3 at GWU - Rangers 4 NOLA 1

Game 1 at Nats Academy - Nationals 3, NOLA 2
Game 2 at Nats Academy - Jennie's Aces 6, Rangers 1
Game 3 at Nats Academy - Compton 6, Cincinnati 1
Game 4 at Nats Academy - Jennie's Aces 22, Kansas City 0
Game 5 at Nats Academy - Phillies 12, Cincinnati 8
Game 6 at Nats Academy -- Nationals 19, Kansas City 1

Records
Aces 2-0
Compton 2-0
Phillies 2-0
Nationals 2-0
Rangers 1-1
Houston 0-2
NOLA 0-2
Cincinnati 0-2
Kansas City 0-2

Kyle Melnick is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington