After seeing a steady decrease in overall numbers for years, Vineyard softball is at a critical point for sustaining the sport.
Just 11 players — two more than the minimum needed to field a team — suited up for the varsity high school team this year, with 10 at the jayvee level. Only four freshmen came out for the teams. The once-thriving Babe Ruth softball league, for girls aged 8 to 16, had no teams at all this year and what was once a staple of afterschool life, the junior high program, will no longer be offered as of next spring.
High school varsity coach Donald Herman, who is stepping down from the coaching position after this season, was direct about the sport’s future.
“I’m very concerned and very scared about the direction of softball on the Island,” he said.
Mr. Herman took on the head coaching position four years ago after volunteering with then-coach Josh Burgoyne, who is now Mr. Herman’s assistant coach. Mr. Herman spent two years coaching at the junior varsity level, and became involved with the Babe Ruth program in 2001, when daughter Gail began playing softball in the third grade.
At the time there were 16 teams in the Vineyard Babe Ruth program. There were eight in the younger level for players in third through fifth grade, and eight in the older level for players in sixth through eighth grade.
By the time Gail was in eighth grade, there were five teams in each level. That number dropped to three in each level, then two in each level, and finally just two teams in the entire Babe Ruth league. At that point, Babe Ruth coordinators Inez and Matthew Montanile began to schedule games against Falmouth. The Montaniles, as was the case with Mr. Herman, became involved when daughter Kimberly started playing in 2000.
The arrival of spring brings with it a surfeit of extracurriculars for Island kids. There is everything from lacrosse to dance to swimming. Softball does not always receive top billing.
“There are kids out there who want to play, [but] softball might not be prioritized,” Mr. Herman said. “That’s a shame, because it’s a fantastic sport.”
In a strange twist, softball is also one of the few sports to compete against itself. In earlier years, junior high games would sometimes conflict with Babe Ruth games, and players would have to decide for whom they were going to play. Ultimately, both programs saw numbers drop. Oak Bluffs School athletics director and physical education teacher Mike Magaraci said participation in the junior high league has been down for the past two years, prompting the decision to drop the sport. A similar fate met junior high baseball, he said. This year, the Tisbury School and the Charter School had to combine their softball teams because numbers were so low. Oak Bluffs, Edgartown and West Tisbury each had between 10 and 12 players on their team. The loss of softball and baseball means the seasons for three junior high mainstays — track, basketball and volleyball — will be shifted next year such that the middle school sports season ends before April vacation. This year’s softball season ended in late spring. The championship game, which the Edgartown Eagles won, was held May 23.
Mr. Magaraci does not want to see softball vanish entirely and, in an effort to rebuild the sport, will be spearheading an effort to get Babe Ruth softball going again next spring for girls in grades four to eight. Girls play baseball in Little League, he said, but around fourth grade they often prefer to play on all-girls squads.
“We’re open to bringing [junior high] back,” he said, “But we’re going to focus on the Babe Ruth league for now.”
The Babe Ruth league filled a much-needed gap between the junior high program and the high school program, Mrs. Montanile said. Skimming the rosters of this year’s high school teams, she said that 8 of the 11 players on varsity had gone through Babe Ruth, as had 5 of the 10 jayvee girls.
Junior high players did not play the same type of softball as that at the high school level, using slow, underhand pitching instead of the more complex windmill style. The only way for players to get exposure to fast pitch was through Babe Ruth.
“Fast pitch softball is an extremely difficult sport to learn,” Mr. Herman said. Hailee McCarthy, the senior ace on this year’s high school team, was “basically the last of the windmill pitchers.”
“We want our girls to actually see fast pitch before they get to high school,” Mr. Magaraci said. “Right now... [most of] the freshmen girls have never seen a fast pitch, only slow pitch...it’s a really big adjustment.”
He remained optimistic about the plans for next spring, saying several parents had joined the cause already.
“I love softball, and I don’t want to see it disappear Island-wide,” he said.