On the Other Field ... Girls Softball is in full Swing!
03/04/2013 09:23AM ● Published by Nancy Babin
With spring just around the corner, it’s time to get a little clay on your shoes, buy a packet of sunflower seeds, and take in a ball game or two. Although the season quickly brings to mind America’s pastime, baseball, you may be forgetting about the groups of hard-working, hard-hitting softball girls in the local borrowed baseball diamonds.
“Coaching softball, I learned there’s a lot of discrimination. Girls really have to fight,” said Warren Whitaker, coach at Destin Middle School. “A lot of sports are centered towards boys. Destin Little League doesn’t even have a girls’ field.”
Whitaker began coaching four years ago. “Some people say softball rules my life.” He has the difficult position of not only being outnumbered by adolescent girls, but also coaching his stepdaughter. “That’s probably the hardest part,” he said about coaching. Still, he treats the entire team equally, an important part of coaching. “Not any one player makes a team,” Whitaker said.
South Walton Youth Baseball and Softball Coach Billy Reifschneider relates to feeling outnumbered. He’s already outnumbered at home with five daughters and a son. He coached his three youngest children in various sports since they were young. “In every aspect of life you have to have self discipline and to work with others,” he said. “It was like ‘Bad News Bears’ meets ‘A League of Their Own’ when I first started coaching softball. They have progressed through practice, games, coaching and their own abilities. If I show them respect, they respect me.”
“When you coach boys, you could scream at them, but you can’t drive girls that way,” Whitaker added. “If you present them with a challenge, they’ll do what they need to do.”
In Reifschneider’s four years of coaching, he has seen the lack of attention in girls’ sports.
“There has been less funding in the past, but we are working on that,” he said.
Andrea Browning has practically grown up on a softball field. She began playing at the age of eight. Now she is a teacher and coaches the Sudden Impact of Northwest Florida softball team. To her, the lack of appreciation is not new. “In my opinion, it is what it is,” she said. “Girls’ sports do not sell tickets.” The setback is just another challenge to overcome. “You gotta get out there and hustle if you want to participate. I remain positive. Each season we know what we are up against and what it will take to be successful. We create a plan and execute our plan.”
The lessons you learn in sports can carry over into all aspects of life. “The biggest thing I teach them is to never say, ‘I can't,’” said Reifschneider. “Once you say that you can't do something - you can't. Your brain will not allow you to be wrong. I teach them to say, ‘I don't know how,’ or ‘Can you show me again?’ and then we work on it until they can. Getting girls interested and to stick with it is the most difficult.”
Despite the lack of crowds, equipment and overall interest in the sport, girls who become a part of a team early reap the benefits throughout life. “My wife and I took a foster parent class and learned that sports give children, especially girls, confidence,” Reifschneider said. “I have five daughters and I want them all to be confident about who they are, not only in sports, but in life.”
The confidence – let alone exercise – can take a child far. “Number one, it keeps them busy,” Whitaker said of playing sports. “It keeps them off the Gameboy for a least a couple of hours.”
Sports also present the chance of a less expensive higher education. “It’s one of the hottest signing sports in college scholarships,” Whitaker said. “But I also stress that the student comes before the athlete. The school board says students have to maintain a 2.0 to play sports – I would like my athletes to maintain a 3.0.”
It’s not an easy job for these coaches to instill good habits and important life lessons into young ladies, especially while juggling their day jobs. “I wouldn’t be able to do with without the assistants – Scott and Jill Ford and the parents,” Whitaker said.
Even if coaching doesn’t come with fortune or fame, these dedicated people do it for the kids – and it’s enough gratification. “The other day I got a Facebook message from a mother who told me her daughter made the junior varsity softball team,” said Whitaker. “That makes you feel very emotional. It makes me feel like I’ve done something important.”
Thinking back to his years of coaching, there is a memory of a player that sticks out in Reifschneider’s mind. “She was the girl who asked a ton of questions and didn't really listen,” he recalled. “All season she never hit the ball. She would swing and miss every time. The last game of the season, our record was tied with the other team in our league. We were in the last inning with two outs and the game was tied. The girl, Harmony, went up to bat and missed the first two pitches, but on the third pitch, she hit it. She got to first, stole second and then stole third. The girl at bat got two strikes. The next pitch was a wild pitch and Harmony stole home to win the game. It was amazing. I ran from my spot coaching third, picked her up and put her on my shoulders. She got the game ball for the first time. That is the reason why I coach. A memory like that is etched in your heart forever.”
It’s those kinds of moments that Browning looks forward to every season. “I look forward to watching the players develop and learn new things and realize what they are capable of doing,” she said. “I love teaching the game to kids. When they work hard and find success, I get a great sense of joy.” While she looks to the future, Browning has an extensive list of things she hopes to see happen in girls’ sports. “More opportunities and more participation,” she said. “Volunteers and supportive sponsors. Positive parent involvement and enthusiasm from the players and parents. Fair play. Competitive athletes who want to get better and have fun.”
No matter if they have a field or support from fans, these young, athletic girls will gain more than pitching skills this season. “She is a part of something larger than herself,” Browning said. “She gains confidence and friendships. We work to instill the expectation in our athletes that they want to be successful in the classroom and on the field. We teach them to work hard, play hard and have fun.”
By Jennie McKeon