When Jamie Gallihugh started playing softball 10 years ago, there was only one youth team in Loudoun County and little hope for girls who wanted to play past high school.

But softball has made an astounding leap in both prominence and popularity in the last decade, across the country as well as in Loudoun, leaving many more options for girls who want to pursue the sport.

Loudoun has become what Jamie's dad, Jim, manager of the under-16 Loudoun Baseliners, calls the "softball mecca" of the United States, in part because it will host the east zone PONY League tournament July 27 to Aug. 1 at 32 fields across the county for the fourth straight year. The county hosted more than 60 teams in the PONY Firecracker qualifying tournament last weekend. The east zone tournament grows every year and has become the unofficial PONY League national tournament.

"I have honestly become a softball junkie," Jim Gallihugh said. "It's unbelievable what these young ladies can do."

Jamie Gallihugh said it was important to her that girls now have the opportunity to play softball past high school.

"You get out there and meet all these different people, and everybody starts looking at how big it's getting," she said. "You can actually do something with softball now and not just have it as a hobby."

There are now more than 1,300 softball players in Loudoun, and 17 area teams will compete in this year's tournament, including Gallihugh's Baseliners. The Baseliners will field at least one team in every age division and two in the 10-, 16- and 19-and-under divisions. The tournament itself has grown from 125 teams two years ago to 288 this year, including two from Canada and one from the Caribbean. All but two of the Loudoun teams earned a berth because they are the host or assistant host team.

The other teams earned invitations by winning local tournaments.

Tournament Director David Meyer said PONY allows each national zone to hold a "combination tournament" at the end of each season, and the zone can invite any PONY League team in the world. Most teams have elected to come to Loudoun over the past four years, and only one other zone even holds a tournament, Meyer said. The east zone covers most of the eastern part of the United States, from Maine to Florida.

"The interest has really grown, and there's a lot to do in this area," Meyer said. "The teams want to come back every year, and that's the key to having a successful tournament."

Hotels all over Loudoun were booked long ago in anticipation of the 288 teams and more than 4,000 players. But hotels as far out as Manassas and Frederick also are housing players and families. All told, the tournament brought in $1.5 million in revenue last year, and that number is expected to increase this year, according to Phil Kane, a PONY public relations representative.

"We essentially have saturated the local area; we've really filled the hotels up," Meyer said.

But the tournament will mean more than just a few extra dollars in the county coffers. College scouts from all over the country come to watch some of the older girls, and 12 players received scholarships based on their play in last year's tournament, said Gallihugh, who served as Lower Loudoun Girls Softball League president for the past three years and still serves on the league board of directors.

Opening ceremonies will be held at Potomac Falls High School on July 28 and will feature a parade of teams and a performance by the King and His Court, a group Meyer calls the Harlem Globetrotters of softball.

The Babe Ruth 16-year-old World Series in Purcellville captured most of the attention last year. But this year it's softball's turn, and Meyer was given a $160,000 budget from PONY for the tournament.

Most of the money is going to pay the umpires, Meyer said, but a lot of money also is being spent on the opening ceremonies and field maintenance, something the county is helping with as well.

Meyer said that he would like the east zone tournament eventually to become the official national tournament but that he isn't getting his hopes up.

"That's really out of our hands," he said. "Hopefully that recognition as far as calling it the national PONY tournament will occur."

CAPTION: Jackie Williams winds up, delivers for Loudoun Storm en route to 1-0 victory over the Heartbreakers on Saturday.

CAPTION: Tiffany Leffel of Loudoun Storm beats throw to Heartbreakers' Jessica Hahn in PONY Firecracker qualifying tournament.