Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

My Softball Sisters

Watching Ava, our 9-year-old granddaughter, play softball over spring break in Scottsdale brought back tender memories of when my parents and I coached our own team of “softball girls.”

First Team Photo

Our first team of 9 year-olds

We began coaching a team of 9-year-olds, like Ava, in Lakewood, Colorado. Most had never played an organized sport before. Quite a few didn’t know the difference between first base and third base. They couldn’t throw or hit a softball. A couple were unsure on what hand their glove fit.

But there was something very sweet about these girls. All but a few wanted to play. They paid attention to coaching. They cried when they made a mistake.

Yes, we had little girls who were more interested in the dandelions than double plays. But they were nine years old. Little boys are no different. They’re just kids.

It was my mother’s idea to coach a team. I suspected coaching a girls softball team was her way of adopting daughters to go along with her only-child son. I got a passel of softball sisters in the deal.

Of my parents, my mother had the athletic ability. She played high school basketball in her small hometown in Southwest Iowa. She played catch with me as I entered Little League. My dad, the former Army sergeant, was the manager.  Because teaching little girls how to throw, bat and run to the right base took a village, I was recruited to coach, too, even though I was only three years older than the girls. It became a family affair.

At our first practice, it was easy to spot two or three girls who had natural skills. We used them as examples to teach the other girls.

We avoided snap judgments about the rest of the girls and their talent. We purposely looked for glimmers of talent in every girl on our team, and it paid off. Good ballplayers are made, not born, so motivation plays a key role in skill development. Some of the clumsiest girls turned out to be among our best players.

Judy Geddes was so tiny she could have used a Barbie baseball mitt. She needed help figuring what hand to use to throw the ball. Ground balls went through her legs like croquet balls through a wicket. But nobody worked harder or wanted to succeed more than her. Judy made herself into a nifty fielding shortstop and a savvy, clutch hitter. She played on our team through high school and went on to play semi-pro softball.

Like all youth teams, some girls drifted away from the game and we recruited friends of the players on our team. One of the recruits was a gangly, shy girl who knew how to throw the ball, but not hit it.

Color Team Picture

Our team in 1965, when I graduated from high school

Mary Miklos came from a tight-knit family. Her father was the team’s biggest cheerleader, whether Mary was on the field or on the bench. It didn’t take long before Mary never saw the bench. Mary had a pure, fluid batting stroke. She needed a cheerleader more than a coach. Once she gained confidence, Mary could hit the ball hard and a long ways. Opposing coaches would walk her when they could, but Mary was so eager to hit that she swung at intentional pitch-outs – and connected on a few of them. She played with us through high school and into semi-pro leagues.

Two players who were naturals from day one – Sherry McKay and Margo Sallen – became the pitcher and catcher, respectively, and anchors of the team. Sherry was a workhorse and Margo was a racehorse. If we would have had team captains, they would have been elected unanimously. Their hard work set the tone for the team.

By our third season, we had gone from a team that was lucky to win a game to winning most of the games we played. Our nemesis was a team from Arvada. The girls measured their progress by how well we played against them and, ultimately, how often we beat them.

As the girls got older, there were fewer teams, so we inherited players. One of our best transfers was Dawn Congdon, a scrappy left-handed pitcher who wasn’t big, fast or wildly skilled. But she was tough and competitive. Dawn gave our team an edge that it had been missing. I remember her being hit by a pitch that must have hurt, but Dawn trotted to first base with a big smile on her face.

Bobbi Allen, who went on to play college softball, joined our team while in high school. She was a terrific windmill pitcher and gave our team a whole new dimension, in addition to three quality pitchers. Bobbi didn’t need much coaching as a pitcher, but she had a hitch in her swing. After some work, she became a solid line-drive hitter.

1967 Team Photo

Our team of high school girls

Through all the practices, games, victories, celebrations at Dino’s Pizzeria (our family hangout) and fast-food dinners, my fondest memory is when our girls challenged their boyfriends to play a softball game. Feeling cocky, the boys agreed and said they “would go easy” on our girls. Right handers batted left-handed. That lasted an inning with three strikeouts.

Who won that game (we did) mattered less than the respect the boys gained for how well our girls played and their dedication to the sport. The boys stopped teasing the girls about playing softball and became fans, attending games, rooting loudly and encouraging the girls to keep playing. They became a potent source of self-confidence and pride for the girls at a time when they were thinking about their educations, their futures and their relationships.

Back in the day, girls didn’t have many options for team sports. I would like to think our softball team filled that gap for some girls who had athletic skill and competitive ambition. Watching the girls grow into young women and skilled softball players was enormously gratifying to my parents and me. Hopefully, the experience was a positive life influence for the girls, several of whom remain in contact with my mother.

Ava and Nichole

Ava and her coach-mom Nichole

Ava, who just turned nine, plays on soccer and flag football teams, as well as a softball team. Her father and mother, who played softball at Jesuit High School, have been her coaches. In the game we saw this spring, Ava hit the ball out of the infield and corralled a grounder to second base. Not bad for a 9-year-old.

Ava was invited to play on her brother’s baseball team, which was shorthanded during Arizona’s spring break. In her first at bat against a live baseball pitcher, Ava smacked the ball squarely down the third base line into the outfield. I couldn’t help but smile, remembering an earlier generation of softball girls who showed the boys how the game is played.

 

 

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