High school softball coaches around the state have bemoaned a drop in participation for several years. But it appears softball’s decline in numbers reached a critical phase at some of the area’s largest schools.
For the first time, Class A will feature two co-operative softball teams – squads made up of two or more schools that are more common in other sports, such as hockey. In Class A South, Falmouth and the Maine Girls’ Academy have combined, while Cheverus has added players from North Yarmouth Academy – which hasn’t had a varsity team for at least five years.
“Numbers are going down in softball everywhere,” said Tom Griffin, the long-time coach at perennial Class A contender Scarborough. “It’s a problem. So many kids are choosing other options.”
Many schools have canceled freshman teams, while others cannot field a junior varsity team.
“It seems to be happening everywhere,” said Falmouth Athletic Director James Coffey. “We’re in a little worse shape.”
Falmouth certainly isn’t alone. According to figures provided by the National Federation of State High School Associations, softball numbers have dropped steadily in Maine and nationwide since 2010. During that time, Maine has lost about eight percent of its softball participants, going from 129 schools and 2,982 participants in 2010 to 128 schools and 2,740 in 2016, with the sport losing three percent, or 11,526 participants, nationwide.
There doesn’t appear to be a single factor.
The rise of lacrosse and ultimate frisbee – a sport that isn’t sanctioned by the Maine Principals’ Association – has pulled some athletes away. Schools also offer track and tennis in the spring. “If you love (softball), you play it,” said Dean Plante, the athletic director at Old Orchard Beach, which canceled its softball season several years ago because of a lack of players but has since returned. “But the kids who are on the fringe are going to other sports.”
Girls’ lacrosse, which according to the NFSH has gained nearly 20,000 participants nationwide since 2010, is fairly stagnant in Maine, actually showing a drop of 99 participants since 2010.
Ultimate, on the other hand, has grown considerably, from 12 teams in 2010 to more than 50 now. According to Maine Ultimate, which sponsors a high school spring league, there were 224 high school girls who played Ultimate in 2016. Kevin Massey, one of the directors of the high school spring league, said he expects a five percent increase this year.
“The kids have more options because there is another sport,” he said. “Ultimate frisbee is another option to the greater Portland schools. It only takes a couple of friends to jump ship from, say, softball, and now more are playing Ultimate. Kids tend to gravitate to what their friends are doing socially and athletically.
“That’s very common in high school sports. Sometimes a softball team might lose three or four kids because one kid might decide to play Ultimate.”
The very nature of softball could be a factor. It is a slower paced game, often dominated by a pitcher who practices year-round, with individual skills on display in every at-bat and every fielding chance. Lacrosse and Ultimate are faster-paced and less focused on individuals.
“It’s hard,” said Greely softball coach Rob Hale, whose team has struggled to get enough players this year despite being one of the best Class B South programs. “It’s tough when a pitcher dominates the sport. It is very intimidating, and also hard to get across to kids that the best players are successful only one out of three times. Girls take failure personally.”
Greely Athletic Director David Shapiro agreed. “When you’re running up and down a field with 11 others, no one notices a mistake,” he said. “When you whiff on three pitches, everyone knows. That fear of failure might have something to do with it.”
Some coaches said one-sport specialization is a factor as well. Mike Fecteau, the first-year coach at defending Class A state champion Biddeford, said one of his starters did not return because she’s playing AAU basketball.
“That’s her passion,” he said. “And I understand that.”
Griffin teaches at Scarborough Middle School and said he has lost a few promising players at that level because they chose to play another sport year-round – one to field hockey, another to basketball.
“You’ve got kids who are specializing,” he said. “I always counted on getting the three-sport athletes to play softball. And they are becoming a rare commodity now.”
Co-op teams could be the lifeline for some programs. Cheverus and MGA would have had enough players to field their own varsity teams without a partner, but likely not junior varsity teams. Falmouth’s inability to field its own team was shocking to many, because the Yachtsmen traditionally have had a strong softball program and the school has one of the state’s best athletic program overall.
But Coffey said numbers had been down for the softball team for a couple years, and only 10 players signed up this year. Some had never played before.
So he put out some feelers to local schools, including Greely. MGA, which had about 15 players, agreed to join forces, and the MPA approved the co-op team last week. MGA has had a co-op field hockey team with Waynflete.
“We definitely feel it’s going to be a positive experience,” said MGA Athletic Director Joe Kilmartin. “It’s good for both of us.”
Coffey was more emphatic: “It’s a lifesaver.”
Co-op arrangements are certainly good for the players, especially at schools that haven’t had another players to field their own team, like North Yarmouth Academy. Joining with Cheverus is a big deal for the four NYA players who make the trip to Portland for practice.
“It’s so much fun,” said NYA sophomore Sydney Plummer, who will play first base. “This means a lot to me. Softball is a passion of mine. And the fact that I can play it and represent both NYA and Cheverus is great. I’ve made so many friends already. I knew nobody going in, but everyone has been so welcoming.”