Here's the pitch on softball

Decline: The waning interest of girls raises concerns about sport's future.

Howard At Play

April 14, 2002|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

No more than five or six springs ago, the buzz throughout Howard County's softball circles concerned the wisdom of converting the youth-level game from the "safe" and traditional slow-pitch form of the game to the riskier fast-pitch version.

Fast-pitch, with its flashy, windmill pitchers and the ball screaming toward hitters instead of arcing gently, has prevailed. That has essentially relegated slow-pitch to picnics, pickup games and contests among adults as much interested in socializing as competing.

This spring, however, a different buzz is becoming louder and louder in youth softball circles locally. More than a few parents, coaches, fans and players have begun wondering if there are enough girls to go around. But the slow- vs. fast-pitch debate isn't a factor.

Lacrosse is. So is soccer. In almost every group, leaders acknowledge that those two sports, especially lacrosse in the past two or three years, have cut drastically into softball. In fact, the Howard County Lacrosse Program - the only such program in the county - has its largest female enrollment this spring.

It seems everybody heard via the grapevine not long ago that the Columbia Youth Baseball Association, which only a few years ago had nearly 200 girls in its softball program, dropped the sport this spring.

"Five years ago, we had four to six teams in each age group," said CYBA President Mike Swartz. "Two years ago, that was down to four teams. And last year, it was just two or three. We just didn't have enough interest to stay competitive."

But CYBA isn't alone. Those familiar with the programs say the nearby Laurel Boys and Girls Club and the Laurel Little League have also collapsed softball for lack of participants.

Just last week, organizers for the Elkridge Youth Organization and the Savage Boys and Girls Club compared notes in preparation for the second spring of Howard County Alliance Softball - a league set up because so many groups were experiencing low turnouts for the sport, especially among girls older than 12.

Together, however, those two organizations, which serve growing parts of the eastern county, will muster five teams for older girls this season.

Many say those older girls are the ones turning away from softball and toward soccer and lacrosse, both of which are faster and - some contend, although it always touches off hot debate - require relatively less skill to play.

Parents, especially, of younger girls seem as caught up at the moment, leaders say, with the prospect of college scholarships for skillful lacrosse players as they were five years ago about soccer scholarships. Yet the reality is that few scholarships, especially "full rides" paying all expenses, are awarded in either sport.

The county's smallest softball group at the recreation level, the Atholton Youth Recreation Association, also gave up trying to field a team for 13- and 14-year-olds and will field just five rec-level teams in Alliance competition and one travel team - its lowest total in years.

"We're not giving up on it, but the decline has really surprised us," said Bob Halstead, as enthusiastic a softball coach as you'll find and in his seventh year as president of AYRA Softball, which operates separately from AYRA Baseball.

Halstead worries about the future of the sport in high schools, observing that a number of JV squads already are struggling, as are at least a couple of varsity programs, for lack of feeder systems pumping in experienced, enthusiastic players.

In only two parts of the county - the west and in greater Ellicott City, substantial centers of population - is girls softball alive and apparently well.

Yet Kathy Reed, softball commissioner for the Western Howard County Youth Baseball and Softball Association for the past two years, hears the buzz, too, and muses out loud:

"I'm so afraid it's a game [about which] I'll have to tell my kids, `I remember when it was really something to play.' I really don't want it to die, because it's such a beautiful game. But there are so many other things for kids to do."

Only Rich Francis, softball commissioner for the Howard County Youth Program, doesn't sound pessimistic. But HCYP has about 600 girls playing this spring, enough to support in-house leagues for girls ages 8 through 14, and one more team for those 18 and younger.

But even Francis volunteered that "we've really had to work on enrollment. They're not flocking in like they used to. It wasn't long ago that by February we had a waiting list, but this year, especially, we've had a lot of late registrations."

The club tries to call all girls who drop out, as many typically do around age 12, and analyze why, Francis said. And he believes in papering schools with registration notices.

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