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Shen middle schooler Justine Henderson finds softball opportunity in Alabama

Shen middle schooler Justine Henderson finds softball opportunity in Alabama

While staying with family down south, Miss Shen pitcher gets to work on her game
Shen middle schooler Justine Henderson finds softball opportunity in Alabama
Justine Henderson of Clifton Park has been able to work on her softball game in Alabama.
Photographer: PHOTO PROVIDED

The nasty changeup sent Justine Henderson from the batter's box to the bench on Sunday.

So much for Southern hospitality.

The 12-year-old Koda Middle School student got another look at one on Tuesday and was able to get wood on it, albeit for a flyout. But that was an encouraging sign of improvement to her mom, Wendy Vanderwiele.

While most kids who are residents of New York state are stuck in a holding pattern by COVID-19 restrictions, wondering when they'll be able to practice sports and play games, Henderson was offered an opportunity out-of-state and has actually been able to work on her softball game lately, in a real team setting.

Vanderwiele's sister and brother-in-law live in Orange Beach, Alabama, on the Gulf Coast, and on their suggestion, Vanderwiele and Henderson have relocated for some vacation time that is also serving as an impromptu summer camp in a state that began to reopen its economy earlier this month and relaxed some of the rules regarding public gatherings.

A pitcher for the Miss Shen Pirates, Henderson is scheduled to compete in the USSSA Northeast National Championships in Connecticut in mid-July. In the meantime, Henderson has temporarily joined the Birmingham Thunderbolts, a national fastpitch travel program, for practices, and has fit right in after some initial adjustments to the level of play and a team full of strangers.

"She was down here for five weeks. Then the volleyball coach who lives next door to my sister knows the softball coach, so it just kind of went around like that," Vanderwiele said.

"They said, 'Hey, if New York doesn't look like they're going to open any time soon, our niece is down here, and she would love to play.' One thing led to another and they said, 'Yeah, we'll have her come throw and play and see where she fits in, and if we can get her to play, we'd love to have her.' We went home and got all her stuff and came back down."

Henderson spent five weeks in Alabama in March and April, then after returning to Clifton Park for two weeks, her mom drove back down last Friday, arriving at her sister's home at noon on Saturday.

By 1:30, she was at the softball complex showing her pitching form to a coach with the Southern Prospects development program. By Sunday, she was in a scrimmage.

"We were planning to leave Monday, Memorial Day, I was just going to bring her back down," Vanderwiele said. "During the week, they said we're going to be scrimmaging and we'd love to have her down if she can get down for this weekend, so it was a last-second, let's pack up and get going.

"It was good for her, because she was missing it, you know."

Henderson, who will be in eighth grade next fall, turns 13 in June and has been playing 12U with Miss Shen, but has been exposed to the 14U level in Alabama while scrimmaging against the Thunderbolts on Sunday and practicing with them on Tuesday.

She held her own on the mound, while batting against older girls with more speed and action on their pitches has been a little slower to come along.

"She was nervous, like anybody," Vanderwiele said. "But she did well. She pitched two innings the other day and did a really good job.

"But the pitching she sees down here batting is a whole lot different from what she's used to seeing. The girls that are throwing here are throwing harder, and they have a lot of movement already. Up there at the 12U level, you don't see a lot of rise balls that actually pop fly out of the zone.'

Vanderwiele said the Alabama kids have embraced her daughter, after natural inquisitiveness at first.

"They're super-nice," Vanderwiele said. "She's had no issues, and they've been super-supportive of her. We were nervous at first when the coach said, 'This is Justine, she's from New York,' that some of the girls were going to be like, 'Uh oh.' But they haven't. They've been really good to her, even last night with the older girls.

"One time the coach said, because it was 90-something, 'Hey, who's hot?' A couple of them raised their hand, and he said, 'Well, where she's from, a couple weeks ago when she went home, they had snow.' And they were like, 'Where are you from?' So then they just started calling her 'New York.'"

"That's what her friends at home are saying, 'You're so lucky,' and I think she realizes she is."

Reach Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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