As high school and travel softball has taken off in more recent years, it was necessary to better prepare middle school athletes who were interested in taking their game to the next level. So a new fast-pitch softball league for middle schools was formed this past fall after local coaches teamed up with Robert Richardson, founder and president of the Babe Ruth Cal Ripken League.
After much consideration, Richardson agreed to get behind the coaches.
“They asked me to do it last year, but I didn’t have the time,” Richardson said. “They came back this year and asked about fall ball and I couldn’t turn them down. Kevin Cioppa and Kelvin Neely had already done the ground work in looking for managers and Kenny Sothoron, a good friend of mine, was instrumental in getting me on board.”
Richardson said the interest was there in the early 1990s, but the athletes were still playing slowpitch as opposed to fastpitch.
Cioppa said he first approached Richardson in early summer.
“The response we got was very significant,” Cioppa said. “I had 47 try out at Margaret Brent. In many ways, it was the hardest cuts I’ve ever had to make. There were a few things we were looking for as we got this started. We were looking for another fast-pitch opportunity for our softball players in the county. Obviously, our goal is to steer them away from slow-pitch and the more fast-pitch opportunities that exist, they will gravitate toward that.
“We were hoping to give them some good experience at a competitive level and mostly we wanted the kids to have a lot of fun. It’s something that picked up and people became very interested in watching.”
Cioppa hopes to see more middle school sports programs flourish in the county.
“I think this points out that students in middle schools are interested in playing for the middle school teams and I hope that the schools will look at the success of our league and the parks and recreation basketball league and start thinking about having a more significant middle school athletic program.”
St. Mary’s County Recreation and Parks opened up the fields at Chancellor’s Run Regional Park in Great Mills on Tuesday nights for the four teams. It was opened to the parochial schools as well.
The Leonardtown Jaguars were coached by Kelvin Neely. The Lady Saints, which were players combined from Father Andrew White School and Mother Catherine Academy were coached by Jennifer Kern. The Margaret Brent Panthers were coached by Chopticon head softball coach Kevin Cioppa and the Esperanza Pirates were coached by Amanda Johnson and former Great Mills head softball coach OJ Lewis. Spring Ridge couldn’t field a team this year.
“We had to, as with the boys, make sure that the parents knew that this league, St. Mary’s Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken League is not affiliated with the St. Mary’s County Public Schools,” Richardson said. “We provide the insurance, the umpires and the uniforms and trophies and the schools were not really involved with the operation of the program.
“I was really surprised with the talent level of the girls. We haven’t done fast-pitch for a long time. I brought down the umpires from Charles County that train fast-pitch umpires at the high school level and I was told that some of these middle school teams could beat some of the varsity teams, they were that good. The main thing is you want to get the girls ready for high school and we did play by the American federation of high school rules.”
The Jaguars entered the championship game against the Lady Saints after an undefeated season and came up against pitcher Lacey Bateman, who Neely said “was on.” The Lady Saints ended the Jaguars winning streak, defeating them 9-8.
Bateman had 10 strikeouts and walked just three. She gave up nine hits in the win.
Margaret Brent defeated Esperanza 14-2 in the consolation game. Eighth-grader Shanyn Burch was the team’s winning pitcher.
Kern said she was extremely proud of her team. The team consisted of 15 players with different levels of skill, with just five having any fast-pitch experience.
“The game was nerve-wracking and intense the whole seven innings,” Kern said. “We jumped out to an early lead and never looked back, however Leonardtown kept fighting.”
The Lady Saints, the third seed, scored first on a home run to deep center field by leadoff batter Kayla Kern.
“That definitely started the momentum for us,” Jennifer Kern said, “and made us realize that we could give Leonardtown a good game, even though they had beaten us twice already. The feeling of winning that game was unbelievable. I was in disbelief, but at the same time I knew if we could minimize our errors, we had a great shot at winning.”
The Lady Saints had a 9-4 lead going into the bottom of the seventh inning and Leonardtown made a move to come back.
Leonardtown’s Jaelyn Boyce reached on a walk and Brooke Radford singled to center. Mandi Hill then hit an RBI single to right followed by Tori Bowles hitting a two-run triple. Taylor Vaughn hit a fielder’s choice to second base that scored Bowles. With two outs, Bateman struck out Renee Neely for the win.
“It was quite incredible that they had the lead the whole time because we’d beaten them 15-5 the first time we’d played them,” Kelvin Neely said, “but we didn’t face Lacey Bateman that game. Lacey was the difference maker and the fact that our defense wasn’t strong. She was really on and her defense put in some good plays and our defense didn’t, plan and simple. We made some errors and those led to runs.”
Kelvin Neely is already thinking about next year and planning on more interest. “Maybe next year we’ll adjust our rules to maybe attract second teams if they’re there because we really do want participation,” Neely said. “We really recognize the need. If you look at how competitive softball is within the three counties, we’re rising at the high school level where Calvert County has been solid for 20 some years.”