Fast-pitch softball has given girls college opportunities

May 30, 2017 FieldsColumn

Emily Gaines starred in fast-pitch at South Laurel and she still holds state records in hitting. She was Miss Softball in 2010 and went on to play college softball at Kentucky. (Times-Tribune photo)

BY MIKE FIELDS

When Emily Gaines started playing fast-pitch softball as a 9-year-old, she was hooked: “I fell in love with it,” she said.

As an eighth-grader, Gaines cracked the starting lineup for South Laurel.

By the end of her high school career, she had written her name in the state record book as the all-time leader in hits (349), doubles (104) and consecutive games hitting streak (52), and was named Miss Softball.

Gaines earned a scholarship to Kentucky, where as a senior she was the Cats’ starting right fielder. In her last game, in UK’s first-ever appearance in the College Women’s World Series, she hit a home run.

“It was an amazing way to end my softball career,” she said.

That was in 2014.

Twenty years earlier, young women could only have dreamed of such athletic achievements.

In 1994, Kentucky was one of only four states that didn’t offer fast-pitch softball to its high school athletes. UK did not have a fast-pitch program either.

“I love the game so much, I can’t imagine not having had a chance to play it,” said Gaines, who’s now a speech pathologist in a London elementary school.

The KHSAA, pushed by the state legislature, began offering fast-pitch softball in the 1994-95 school year. Schools were allowed to keep playing slow-pitch, too. That first year 229 schools had fast-pitch teams; 91 had slow-pitch teams; 61 had both.

(Even though the number of slow-pitch teams dwindled over the years, the KHSAA kept sponsoring a slow-pitch state tournament through 2007. Those last few competitions were made up almost entirely of Northern Kentucky teams.)

Fast-pitch quickly became the softball sport of choice.

Western Kentucky got a jump-start on the rest of the state because it already had youth-level fast-pitch leagues. That’s why Reidland, a small school in McCracken County, was able to win the first fast-pitch state championship.

“In my part of the state, they had fast-pitch for years in what was called the Khoury League,” said Tony Burkeen, who coached Reidland. “It went back probably 10 or 15 years before ’95. I even asked permission, and got it, from the KHSAA in ’94 to go over to Southern Illinois once or twice to play some fast-pitch games.

“There was no question in my mind it’d be popular everywhere once it got going.”

Owensboro Catholic quickly established itself as a fast-pitch power, too.

George Randolph was the Aces’ assistant slow-pitch coach in 1995. They didn’t participate in fast-pitch that first season.

When Randolph took over as head coach in 1996, Owensboro Catholic fielded slow-pitch and fast-pitch teams made up of the same girls. The Aces played 10 slow-pitch games to qualify for the state tournament, which they won. They were region runners-up in fast-pitch.

After that, Owensboro Catholic became a fast-pitch juggernaut, winning state titles in 1998, 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2009.

Randolph is a big fan of the fast-pitch game.

McCracken County hoisted the trophy in 2015, giving western Kentucky another softball title. (KHSAA photo)

“It’s so much more exciting than slow-pitch, and there’s more strategy involved,” he said. “There’s a place in fast-pitch for everybody. You have the kid that’s small and fast that can run and slap and bunt. In slow-pitch you just need people who hit the ball hard.”

Tracy Spickard was another coach who saw fast-pitch as a superior game, even though she was an assistant coach when Jessamine County, her alma mater, won the slow-pitch state title in 1993.

“I personally liked fast-pitch better because I grew up playing baseball,” said Spickard, who has been Franklin County’s coach since 1997.  “I loved slow-pitch too, and played a lot of it. But I thought it was a positive move when we went to fast-pitch. We have a lot of elite female athletes in the state, and this gives them an opportunity to showcase their natural skills and abilities.”

Western Kentucky teams (1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th regions), have won 15 of the 22 state fast-pitch titles, with Owensboro Catholic, Greenwood and Reidland taking multiple championships. Louisville Manual was an early power, too, capturing state titles in 1997 and 2000.

North Laurel, under the direction of Jimmy Durham, was the first program in the eastern part of the state to break through and win a championship.

Durham became the Jaguars coach in 1997 and was determined to build a state contender.

“The first five or six years, if we’d stayed within 75 miles for our schedule, we probably never would’ve lost a game,” he said. “But I wanted to get out there and play the Manuals, Ballards, Jeffersontowns and Butlers to make us better.

“I remember the biggest victory we had in those early years was in 1998 when we went to the J-town Charger tournament in Louisville and beat Manual. That was a defining victory for our program because it let the girls know we could play with those people.”

North Laurel came within one out of winning the 2000 state title before falling to Manual. But the Jaguars came back the next year to win the championship.

“When Clay County won the 1997 (state basketball title), Bobby Keith talked about how they won it for the mountains,” Durham said. “I felt the same way when we won our state title because people wondered if a team from Southeastern Kentucky could ever compete with the Louisville or Western Kentucky teams in softball.”

North Laurel recently became the first fast-pitch program in the state to win 700 games.

Durham, who got out of coaching after the 2006 season, thinks parity in the game has spread across the state, along with the quality of competition.

“The first game I coached at North Laurel, we played Pulaski County on an old football field at Pulaski County, and we won 35-0 in three innings,” he said. “Pulaski County beat us last year 2-1.

“Just about everybody can play now. We went 11 innings with Clay County a few weeks ago and won (4-3) on a walk-off homer. Those are the kind of games in the past that were sure wins. But everybody’s gotten better.”

Burkeen agreed: “The quality of the game has increased tremendously every year. Fast-pitch has caught on fire, and it’s hotter than a firecracker now.”

Randolph has the same opinion: “Parity is taking over. You have so many more schools invested in it, and have coaches who know the game.”

Scott County has given Central Kentucky softball a higher profile by winning two of the last three state titles.

Scott County was the first 11th Region team to win a fast-pitch title in 2014, and the Cardinals also won the championship in 2016. (KHSAA photo)

“Fast-pitch has definitely come a very, very long way, especially in the central and eastern parts of the state,” Spickard said. “We were playing catch-up with western Kentucky and Louisville for a while, but I think you can note in the state champions and teams that make deep runs in the state tournament, we’re much more balanced across the state now.”

The game itself has changed, too. It used to be dominated by pitching. That’s not always the case now, partly because a few years ago the distance between the pitching rubber and the plate was increased from 40 to 43 feet.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but those extra three feet make a tremendous difference to the batter, and it’s made a big difference offensively for teams,” Durham said.

The sport has also gotten a boost from more exposure, “whether it’s in the Olympics, college games on ESPN, UK’s success . . . all that coverage helps make it more exciting,” Durham said.

But the most exciting part of all is that over the past 22 years, thousands of girls have parlayed their fast-pitch talents into college scholarships.

“The opportunities are there, and they’re continuing to grow,” Spickard said. “More colleges are investing more in fast-pitch programs, and that’s going to trickle down to our interscholastic schools.”

Burkeen said in his 12 years at Reidland and two at Christian County, he had 24 girls earn scholarships.

Randolph has had 39 players get scholarships in his 20 years at Owensboro Catholic.

Durham estimates that in his 10 years as North Laurel coach, he had 15 girls who went on to play college ball, including four at Division I level.

One of those Division I players was Becky Abner, a pitching/hitting star who led South Laurel to the 2001 state title. She had 125 career pitching wins, including 86 shutouts, and was Miss Softball in 2002.

Abner earned a scholarship to UK.

Although her career was cut short when she suffered a severe concussion after getting hit in the back of the head by a thrown ball, she still got a college education thanks to the sport.

“I wouldn’t have had that opportunity without a scholarship,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to go to UK without softball.”

Becky Abner Osborne is 33 now. She has an office job in London and is kept busy with her two children. But she still finds time to give pitching lessons to young players.

The main reason she works with the girls?

“I want them to be great because if they are, they’ll get to go to college and get most of it paid for, and not be up to their eyeballs in student-loan debt,” Abner Osborne said. “That’s the most important thing, to give them that chance.”