Seeds of playoff team were planted years ago, nurtured over time
With T.R. Miller's advancement into the state playoffs of girl's fast pitch softball, a milestone was reached in this area. In 2000 the Brewton Area YMCA took a bold stance and introduced girl's fast pitch softball to the city. The thoughts at that time were that the sport had to have a direction and be goal oriented. There were no opportunities for advancement in the sport as it existed in the slow pitch game. Colleges, high schools and traveling teams nationwide build their programs around the fast pitch game. It is more exciting for the players as well as the fans. The new game and the added dimensions of stealing bases and high speed pitching has substantially changed the face of this sport for young women in this city.
The first people that should be thanked in support of this important change are the parents. Without their support and encouragement, this sport would have quickly died. Those early years were awkward and embarrassing. Both girls and coaches learned what it felt like to walk in winning runs and swing behind a well pitched fastball. We were well schooled in what it felt like to have the ten-run-rule enforced after five innings of play.
Guidance, education and training from experts like Karen Reynolds, Brandi Paul and Sonya Cook were valuable assets in getting both coaches and players up to speed in a totally different style of ball. It's not baseball and it's not little league, it's fast pitch. Everything is different, from the pitch to the batting stance, to the strategies used -- this game only mimics baseball in its appearance. Those were the first things I had to learn and "unlearn" from my own baseball past.
The early years allowed the YMCA to form a traveling team that exposed some of the girls to a higher level of play in AAU (Alabama Athletics Union) sanctioned tournaments in Pensacola and Baldwin County.
Dr. James Walker volunteered his time to assist Sonya Cook in coaching this team and instructing pitchers. Terrill Neal was instrumental in seeing that these girls had equipment and also searched for opportunities to have them attend outside clinics that went beyond what could be offered locally. The level of play was so high that we never won a game that season, but a hunger for competition was created. The young girls on that team vowed they would never go back to slow pitch.
These girls who put their trust in that early training and those fundamentals of the game are now playing at the high school level. At the time they began playing fast pitch softball, the game did not exist in our local schools. Unknowingly, they were going to be pioneers of this sport for young women in the greater Brewton area. Many of the girls of that first YMCA/AAU traveling team are now members of both the W.S. Neal and T.R. Miller teams. My family still cheers for Abby Howard and Brittney Tagudar as they make plays for their "Lady Eagles" team.
Parents can only take children so far and then it's time to turn them over to a mentor who will guide them further into the mental and physical disciplines of the game. That occurred with the T.R. Miller "Lady Tigers" when Coach Jamie Riggs bravely accepted the challenge of taking on a bunch of girls. With Riggs as head coach of the team and Paul Smith as his assistant, a new era had entered girls softball. This spoke volumes to anyone who knows anything about the tradition of T.R. Miller sports. If the state champion head football coach believes in these girls, then they had no choice but to believe in themselves.
This area has some quality programs with teams in Atmore, Flomaton, Brewton, East Brewton and Jay competing at the high school level. I am proud for parents who have girls coming up in these programs with all the right tools in place. This was not always the case.
There is always room for improvement and the next area should be at the middle school level. This is where the great pitchers, catchers, fielders and hitters are groomed. It's true for the boys' sports and it's the same for girls. With the T.R. Miller "Lady Tigers" recent trip to the state playoffs, I am hopeful that more girls in this age group will approach their parents about being interested in fast pitch softball. We have to remember that this program did not even exist four years ago and we have already seen a team advance to the state playoffs.
I was fortunate to grow up here in Brewton and benefit from a strong summer program that focused on Little League baseball. That program still seems to be a vital part of growing up for those young men who want to participate in the national pass time of throwing, catching, hitting and running.
Each week, my work takes me out of Brewton where I can see growth in facilities, teams, newspaper coverage and parental support for girls sports.
At the Brewton Area YMCA we have a great facility that was built specifically for the future of girl's softball. Its construction is a tremendous statement to those who live here and testament to those who visit. All that remains is whether we, as the parents, coaches and fans, will continue to make good on the promise made to our daughters.