Ask that question at Donoho School in Anniston and there’s an unexpected answer, but coach Sal Gardner certainly takes a humorous approach when opposing coaches and players attempt to point out the obvious.
“They were saying, ‘Coach, you’ve got a girl on first base.’ And I was like, ‘Where?’” Gardner said.
Jokes aside, Gardner does, actually, have a girl on first. And one on second, too. Ninth-graders Courtney Bolton and Emily Rogers definitely stand out on the baseball field, two young girls playing what’s considered a boys sport.
Each has played organized fastpitch softball for years, but they don’t have that opportunity at Donoho, where the sport was phased out in the last decade. They didn’t let that stop them, however.
“We both decided we wanted to play baseball,” Bolton, said. “It keeps you playing.”
Added Rogers, “Once we figured out we weren’t getting a softball team, we decided to play baseball. There’s not a lot of interest. I decided not to make a big deal of it and just play baseball.”
Bolton and Rogers will be in action today when the Falcons play Wellborn at 4:30 p.m. in the Calhoun County baseball tournament. Fourteen of the 15 teams will be in action, with top-seeded Oxford receiving a bye.
Bolton starts for the Falcons at first, while Rogers gets a lot of playing time as a backup at second. Each has a hit this season, although that has been one of the biggest adjustments. The different release point of an overhead pitch versus an underhand one, as well as different ways the ball tails off as it crosses the plate has meant the girls have spent a lot of time in batting cages.
“In softball, the ball comes up, and this is more downward,” Bolton said. “It’s hard to get used to. You have to change your swing.”
The two players pointed out differences in the pace of the two games, but some things, like fielding, are still the same, they say.
“It’s different,” Rogers said. “It’s like picking up a new sport. It’s like something you like from a different angle. There are bigger people and it’s a faster pace. It’s kind of intimidating.”
Gardner said he’s been impressed with the adjustments made by the girls. In addition to the hitting, Bolton has also had to learn to hold runners on at first, something that’s not required in softball.
“She made a good play against Fayetteville on a double play,” Gardner said. “Their coach said, ‘That was a great stretch she made at first base. It looks like she’s done it all her life.’”
While the two Donoho players aren’t groundbreakers, they are definitely in rare company. Ron Ingram, the spokes-man for the Alabama High School Athletic Association and a longtime Birmingham News writer before that, could only recall two players in the past 30 years to have an impact.
Lee Anne “Beanie” Ketcham was a starting pitcher for Vestavia Hills in the late 80s. She is now the softball coach at Samford University. Ketcham gained notoriety playing for the Colorado Silver Bullets, an all-female baseball team that played against minor league baseball teams in the mid-90s.
Mary Kathryn “Capper” Reed made All-State playing centerfield for Guntersville in the late 90s. She is now the co-head softball coach at Guntersville.
Ingram said there were likely more, but those two stood out after they had significant success. It’s unclear if there have been other girls start for baseball programs in Calhoun County.
The Falcons (4-3) haven’t gotten into the meat of the schedule yet, and players say they haven’t seen any harassment intended solely for the female players. Several of the upperclassmen boys say they’re protective of their female teammates, but they point out they’re that way for any of their teammates.
“We try to take up for all of our teammates,” sophomore third baseman Matthew Overton said.
Still, the older, more experienced players do make a point of helping the girls, said Rogers. She and Bolton agreed that it’s like having “13 older brothers,” with Rogers jokingly adding that the boys on the team were “a mess.”
“They’re like mini coaches,” Rogers said. “They help us, but they’re also helping the seventh graders and others. They’re just trying to get everyone to play as a team.”
While Bolton and Rogers might stand out as different to opponents, to the Falcons, they’re just teammates.
“If they can play, it’s fine. It makes no difference,” Overton said. “They’re just teammates.”
Gardner said he doesn’t point out differences on his team. Instead, he puts the focus on team. The players seem to have bought into that.
“We treat them like everyone else,” sophomore shortstop Walker Mason said. “We hold them responsible like the others in the group if they make a mistake.”
Assistant coach Ty Gardner said the players have been “super” about including the girls on the team.
“They don’t treat anybody any different than anybody else,” he said. “They’re just ballplayers, not guys or girls.”
There are no locker room issues, either, since the players dress for a game in the gym before they get on the bus for a road trip.
For the past several years, Donoho has not fielded a girls softball team. With limited enrollment in its upper school grades, Donoho ran into a problem of not having enough interested players to field teams in all the spring sports it offered.
About four years ago, athletics director Bob Phillips said, the school held a meeting with the parents of its female students to see whether they wanted to participate in softball or soccer. Soccer was the overwhelming favorite, so the school turned its financial resources toward that sport.
“We had to make a choice four years ago,” he said.
Phillips said he thinks interest in softball waned around 2000 or so when the schools went from slow pitch to fast pitch.
“We didn’t have enough kids to fill out a team,” Phillips said. “We knew we were going to disappoint some people.”
Still, Phillips said he was excited when Rogers and Bolton expressed interest in baseball.
“I think the girls playing on the boys team is exciting. They’re not just playing, they’re making a tremendous impact,” Phillips said.