GREENFIELD — Nearly every high school softball coach has witnessed the scenario. A ball comes screaming off the bat with a sound almost identical to a clap of thunder.
In a perfect world, the opposing defender standing 60 feet away — or less — fields the ball cleanly and throws it to their intended target. However, sometimes in sports, things don’t go as planned.
With new technology in bats, not to mention the increased size and skill level of young athletes, more and more players are finding themselves at the wrong end of a line drive or bad infield hop.
And in high school softball as of late, no topic has been more popular than that of safety masks.
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Should these masks become mandatory safety equipment or are they weakening confidence in today’s athletes?
The National Federation of State High School Associations does not currently require safety masks to be worn in high school softball, although according to New Palestine head coach Ed Marcum, the debate has been increasingly thrust into conversations during the past decade.
“It’s probably been the last 10 years when it started, and it’s just sort of grown,” Marcum said, who has more than 20 years of coaching experience. “Used to, we never saw a kid in a mask. Then we saw a few, and it kept building.”
A recent study completed by the University of Colorado Denver indicates that 21.6 percent of injuries occurring during softball competition are to the head or face. The next highest categories were to the knees (17.2) or ankles (16.8).
The study, which researched all high school sports during the 2012-13 school year, also said more injuries occurred in softball (58,124) than in baseball (49,747).
And according to zepptraining.com, an average high school player can swing the bat (through the strike zone) between 50 and 75 miles per hour. Even if a pitcher has decent arm strength (50-60 mph), at best, the ball rifles off the bat in almost the blink of an eye.
“The bats that we use today don’t necessarily reflect a good swing,” Eastern Hancock head coach Sue Anderson said. “It just resembles being able to put the bat on the ball.”
Anderson has experienced the game of softball at nearly every level. From playing at Anderson College to trying out for the Olympic team, the fourth-year Royals coach has witnessed her fair share of close calls.Nonetheless, she leaves the decision to wear safety masks to her players. And most choose to trust their hand-eye coordination.
Anderson also has three kids younger than the age of 10, which she requires to wear masks — although it is not a rule in their respective league.
“I think the younger generation is growing up with these masks,” Anderson said. “When I put one on, I couldn’t see out of it. They are getting used to it.
“I think the high schools girls find them uncomfortable.”
Added Marcum, “If you watch a youth league game now, you will very rarely not see a mask.”
Anderson said she knows some leagues do require protective masks as mandatory equipment. One of the biggest flaws in that requirement, though, is the added cost.
The Greenfield Fast Pitch Softball Association, according to director Zach Muegge, does not enforce masks to be worn.
He noted the added dollar amount ($30 to $50) parents have to spend on top of all other equipment needs. And though he prefers for his kids to wear them, the board, like most of the area, remains split on the right decision.
At Greenfield-Central, head coach Jason Stewart remains torn, although he does not require his players to wear them, either. However, he would like to see third baseman and pitchers be required to do so.
“I think the only ones that do are my pitchers and not all of them did,” Stewart said. “It’s a sticky situation. It really is with the way kids hit the balls these days.”
And Stewart has seen the trend developing in youth leagues, as well. His 11-year-old daughter will not pitch without one, he said.
“The kids are too good of athletes,” Stewart said. “It’s just not worth the risk. They are going to training and swinging the bats harder than ever before.”
And it becomes even more dangerous at the high school level after several years of development.
“You have kids like (Greenfield-Central’s) Morganne Denny and Issy Hoyt (of New Palestine) and Darcie (Huber of Greenfield); if they square one up from 40 feet away, you are not going to get a glove on it,” Stewart said. “It can be ugly.”
Just this season, the Cougars had a second baseman break her nose on a bad infield hop and three years ago, they had a shortstop suffer a concussion on a similar play.
And in a junior varsity game with Shelbyville last season, an opposing pitcher was drilled in the face and broke her jaw.
“Unfortunately, it’s going to take some 12- or 13-year-old getting killed for someone to mandate them,” Stewart said.
For New Palestine’s Marcum, the situation really boils down to fundamentals rather than safety; although, he would never tell one of his players that she cannot wear a mask.Instead, he would prefer they have confidence in their fielding ability, which is ingrained at a young age.
However, it is becoming a trait of the past.
“We have too many young girls that have now relied on the mask instead of learning proper fundamentals,” Marcum said. “I’m kind of old school; we didn’t have those when my kids were growing up. I think at a very young age we are teaching them to be afraid of the ball. They are using it as a crutch instead of learning the right way.
“But I know there are some good qualities to them. I understand the reasoning.”
Playing a schedule comprised mostly of Class 3A and 4A programs, Marcum said he saw less and less masks as the season progressed. Stewart and Anderson noticed it, too.
“Occasionally I would see maybe a pitcher or third baseman (wearing one),” Marcum said. “On the better teams, you see fewer masks. That doesn’t mean a player isn’t going to get a bad hop or something like that.”
Added Anderson, “I know a lot of corners (first and third) will wear them so they can come up on a batter (for a bunt).”
Anderson’s top pitcher last season, 2016 graduate Darby Shaw, spent more than 100 innings on the mound and trusted her instincts. Although she did wear a mask as a youth player.
“As I got older I stopped wearing it,” Shaw said, who will play softball at Anderson. “It was annoying to mess with and made it harder to see.”
And sometimes players view the masks as a sign of weakness, Marcum said. No one wants to be the odd one out.
But in his mind, this could all be fixed if they are taught the proper way.
“By the time they get to me, if they are not fundamentally sound with or without a mask, they are going to have a tough time playing.”