Dwindling registration in recent years has prompted the Lutz Leaguerettes girls’ softball organization to add a recreational fast-pitch league for the first time in its 37-year history.
The league expects 15 teams, across four age groups, and the deadline for registrations is Feb. 1.
The Lutz Leaguerettes, a nonprofit organization, has provided slow-pitch softball to girls ages 5 to 18, making it the lone recreational slow-pitch girls’ league in Hillsborough County.
Other softball programs — the Brandon Leaguerettes, North Tampa Leaguerettes, Tampa Bay Velocity and FishHawk Miss Tampa Bay Softball — all transitioned exclusively to fast-pitch over the past few seasons.
“The Lutz Leaguerettes is the last of a dying breed,” said Mike Cook, president of the Leaguerettes. “Slow-pitch is kind of dying out, because a lot of people want to play fast-pitch, and they see all these college girls playing fast-pitch; there’s just a lot more interest in fast-pitch.”
Jennifer Parry, who’s the league’s secretary, said the increased desire for young girls to play in high school also has had an influence.
“I think with the popularity of (former Olympic gold medalist softball pitcher) Jennie Finch, the Olympics and all these girls playing softball in college, it’s really changed softball for kids,” she said. “So many more kids want to play softball in high school, so they’re having to learn how to play fast-pitch. The registration numbers are dwindling for slow-pitch, so now we’re adding fast-pitch. …We’re trying to get girls excited and out there playing.”
Before the rise of fast-pitch, Cook said the Leaguerettes once had 400-plus girls playing in the league. Now, the league has around 120 girls participating in the slow-pitch category.
The dip in participation has made scheduling difficult, and the competition monotonous.
“Last season, my daughter played in the Pixie (ages 5-9) division and there were five teams, and this season there’s only three,” Parry said. “Just for the kids, to be able to keep it going, you got to have more participation.”
Ideally, the Leaguerettes would like to offer both slow-pitch and fast-pitch leagues, with the former running from November to January, and the latter starting in February each year.
“We’re going to see what happens. If we have to give up slow-pitch by the wayside, then we’ll make a decision when the time comes,” Cook said. “Until then, we’re going to try to continue with both leagues.”
Cook noted that “fast-pitch isn’t all that different from slow-pitch,” but there will be a few adjustments. For example, there are a few rules that differ for fast-pitch, as well as the type of equipment required for players to be safe and effective.
Additionally, the offensive strategy for fast-pitch softball contrasts with slow-pitch.
In fast-pitch, the general offensive approach is to play ‘small ball,’ where bunting, slapping and hitting singles are heavily relied upon to generate runs. Conversely, offensive players in slow-pitch softball are often taught to hit the ball as far as possible, due to the relative ease at making contact.
Typically, fast-pitch age divisions are separated every two years, but the Leaguerettes will start with just four age divisions: 8U (ages 6-8), 12U (ages 9-12), 16U (ages 13-16) and 18U (ages 17-18).
“I’d be willing to bet we’ll have 15 teams divided up among the divisions,” said Parry, who expects about 150 girls in the league’s inaugural fast-pitch season. “The 18U is our toughest (to fill) right now, because the girls at that age don’t want to transition from slow-pitch to fast-pitch, because they’ve been playing slow-pitch their entire life, and that’s a big adjustment…but, the 12U division is blowing up and is by far the fullest.”
A majority of the games will be played at the Oscar Cooler Sports Complex in Lutz, with the league hoping to host some tournaments that feature rec teams throughout Tampa, Wesley Chapel, Brandon and Temple Terrace.
The league has already been selected to host the all-county Early Bird Tournament from Feb. 26 to Feb. 28, which will include up to 10 different leagues.
“We’re in the process of scheduling some tournaments,” Cook said. “We’d love to have some tournaments at our field, because it’s a wonderful fundraiser, and it just creates a buzz at the field like no other. …When you have three fields going — three different games, six different teams playing, concession stand buzzing — it just gives a feeling of belonging.
“The concession stand is, bar none, the best you will find in the county. It’s clean, they provide quality service and have monthly specials, and it’s volunteers that run it all,” he said.
Getting the league back to its height of popularity isn’t the only goal. League officials also stressed the importance making sure the participants’ experiences are rewarding and enjoyable.
“It’s an opportunity for the girls to make new friends. All the girls can commiserate and create friendships that last a lifetime,” the league president said. “The lessons that they learn are lessons they’ll carry for the rest of their life — patience, understanding, tolerance and communication.
“There’s a number of things the girls learn and a number of tools they receive that they utilize for life that they don’t even realize at the time,” Cook said.
Published January 20, 2016