With the ball flying off the bat at increasingly dangerous speeds, more pitchers have become unwilling targets as they stand unprotected in the middle of high school softball infields.
Only lightning-quick reactions — and a lot of luck — have prevented more injuries like those suffered by Caitlin Cooper.
The Columbia High School senior, one of the top pitchers in the Suburban Council, was drilled by a line drive in a recent game at Guilderland. Cooper’s season is likely over after surgery to repair a broken nose and jaw, and damage to her teeth.
“She had no chance [to protect herself],” said Columbia coach Chris Ciccone, who had trouble relating the incident some 10 days after it happened. “The ball was on her that fast.”
Like the overwhelming majority of pitchers in the area, Cooper was not wearing a protective mask.
In light of that unfortunate at-bat, coaches are beginning to preach the advantage of safety over vanity to their players, particularly pitchers and corner infielders, who often are less than 40 feet away from the hitter at the moment the ball is put into play.
“I think we’re going to see more of it,” said Duanesburg coach John Conway, whose primary starting pitcher, Erika Kenny, is the first to wear the mask in his 14 years at the school. “I think they’ve never been comfortable with them, because they don’t have to wear them. But with this, and the concern over concussions, I can see more pitchers going to them.”
Two of Conway’s infielders have also opted for the protective equipment.
There is no rule that forces players to wear the masks. The only protective gear, other than catcher’s equipment, that is mandated requires batters, on-deck hitters, base runners and players standing in a coaching box to wear a helmet.
“I’m a strong advocate of the corner infielders and pitchers wearing them, and that was before Caitlin got hit,” said Ciccone. “Three years ago, the state sent out an informal questionnaire, asking if we’d like to see them made mandatory for corner infielders and pitchers. I said yes.
“The clincher for me was this summer. I saw a girl get seriously injured.”
“Our kids have never worn them, but if it makes them feel safer, I’m OK with that,” said Mechanicville coach Don Arceneaux, whose daughters, Abby and Anna, both pitched his teams to state titles.
Cooper missed more than a week of school after her surgery, returning last Tuesday for a half-day and her first full day on Wednesday.
Her father, George, coaches travel teams in the East Greenbush system, working with both hitters and pitchers. He has seen the game change in the 10 years he’s been involved with the sport.
The culprit, according to coaches, is the bat.
“Its the technology, the composite bats. The ball gets on them so fast,” said Ciccone.
“I also work a lot with hitters, so I know how much the bats have improved, how much these girls have worked on their swings, how they are in the gym lifting weights,” said George Cooper. “The game has changed a lot.”
“The ball comes off the composite bats so fast, sometimes it’s scary,” said Schalmont coach Eric Lybrand, whose right side of the infield — both underclassmen — have taken to wearing the protective mask. “We practice with tennis balls to prepare for the reaction time. The ball is just flying.”
“Everybody wants the new $300 bat,” said Arceneaux. “The ball just takes off when you make contact.”
Caitlin Cooper had been sidelined before as the result of being struck by a batted ball.
“She got hit two years ago. She got her glove on the ball, but it still hit her in the head. She had a mild concussion and was out for two weeks,” her father said.
“In hindsight, on my part, that’s when I probably should have talked to her about wearing one. I can tell you that pitchers on my teams will wear them from now on. These girls are pitching from 43 feet away, and by the time they follow through, they’re about 40 feet away from the hitter. There’s next to no time to react.”
Senior Anna Grace Maggs of Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons has moved from center field to third base this season. After some initial reluctance, she’s glad she opted to wear a mask.
“I didn’t want the mask, for aesthetic reasons,” said Maggs, who set up about 30 feet away on bunt situations in a recent game with Schalmont. “After a few practices, I ripped it off and said. ‘I can’t do this.’ ”
A conversation with her mother, and the first line drive hit directly at her, changed her mind.
“My mom always says to me, ‘You’re really close. You scare me.’ From a spectator’s point of view, I can see where it’s a little nerve-wracking,” Maggs said.
“One of the first games, the ball was hit like a bullet at my face. My initial reaction was to duck, but I didn’t because I was wearing the mask. It fits well, and doesn’t interfere with my vision. And it’s not heavy. Now, I usually can’t even feel it.”
While not required, more players are opting to wear a mask at the youth level, making the equipment less foreign as they move on to school softball.
“Our pitchers wear them, and I’m glad they do,” said Troy coach George Rafferty.
His No. 1 pitcher, Hunter Levesque, is an eighth-grader, part of a growing number of the younger players taking the better safe than sorry approach.
“I do think more of the younger players are more receptive,” said Rafferty.
Niskayuna is among the leaders in getting players to accept the added protection.
“On our modified, freshman and JV teams, more corner infielders and pitchers are wearing them than don’t,” said varsity coach Jules Paul. “I think that’s what we’re going to see.”