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Spring softball options shrink

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Oak Ridge's Hannah Sedgwick and her teammates do not have the opportunity to participate in postseason play because the Missouri State High School Activities Association tournament is in the fall. Oak Ridge is one of the few teams left that plays softball in the spring.
(Fred Lynch)
Volleyball success plays important role in schools not switching.

The passion Leopold students and community members have toward volleyball is evident from the devoted following that has trailed the team from gym to gym watching the Wildcats rack up wins and postseason appearances.

Leopold's spring softball team finished 9-3 last season and has started strong again this year as the program builds a competitive base. The success of Leopold's volleyball program -- the Wildcats own three state titles, six final four appearances and 18 district titles, including five straight -- will likely keep its softball program from ever feeling that postseason glory the volleyball team not only has enjoyed, but expects each season.

"For them, it is a disappointment not to go to state or to play in the championship," Leopold softball coach Ted LeGrand said of the volleyball team.

Southeast Missouri remains one of the last great bastions for spring softball, and the passion for volleyball at area small schools serves as a big factor in keeping many programs from making the move to the fall. Nearly one-third of the 92 schools that compete in the spring, and some of those play in both spring and fall, are located in Southeast Missouri.

"I don't see us changing at all. I don't see anything taking the place of volleyball," LeGrand said. "Softball, we've tried to make it a more competitive program and we've gotten better, but I don't think it will ever take the place of volleyball."

A recent trend among area schools has been a shift away from spring softball, moving to the fall or ending their programs all together.

Two more area schools will bid farewell to spring softball this year as Scott City and Oran make the switch to the fall starting in the 2007-08 school year. The Eagles and Rams follow in the recent footsteps of Chaffee, which finished its third fall season a few months ago.

With the two defections, that leaves Leopold, Oak Ridge, Woodland, Advance, Scott County Central, Meadow Heights and Saxony Lutheran as the area schools that play exclusively in the spring. Delta plays in both the fall and spring. Another of those schools, Saxony Lutheran, is looking to make the move to the fall starting in 2008, athletic director Larry Cleair said.

"The number of schools that play exclusively in the spring are few and far between," Missouri State High School Activities Association spokesman Rick Kindhart said.

The biggest downside regarding spring softball continues to be the lack of a postseason. A measure on the MSHSAA ballot to create a separate softball state tournament for the spring failed last year by a vote of 242-122. Without the possibility of postseason success, finding motivation for players and coaches can be difficult.

Without a postseason tournament, events like the Oak Ridge Tournament, which starts today, can take on more importance. Seven of the area's spring softball squads will take part in the tournament, which ends Saturday. Delta will get a bye to start the tournament.

Other matchups include Meadow Heights and Leopold, Oran versus Oak Ridge and Scott City against Woodland. The finals are scheduled for 3 p.m. on Saturday.

"They're looking forward to it," LeGrand said of his players. "Last year they lost three games and the three teams that beat us will be in the tournament."

Playing for conference success was no longer good enough for schools like Scott City and Oran. Both schools have enjoyed success during the spring, and look forward to making a push toward the playoffs next year.

"I think it's a decision which is good for the girls," Scott City coach Sally O'Brien said. "They know they can play for something. As far as the girls who want to play both softball and volleyball, they have a tough decision."

Oran coach Wade Sanders, who said he will not coach the team in the fall, believes the Eagles will carry their success to the fall season.

"I don't know why they didn't do it before," he said. "They'll be highly motivated in the fall. These girls know they're good enough to go pretty far."

With a large majority of spring softball teams in Southeast Missouri, a postseason tournament involving those teams could be a possible solution. Other states, including Illinois, play softball in the spring. With a disproportionate number of girls MSHSAA sports in the fall, moving the softball season from the fall to spring seems to make sense.

The state tournament briefly moved to the spring for the 1979-80 school year, but was quickly voted back to the fall for the 1981-82 school year by a narrow margin of 144-117. There was a MSHSAA vote in 1998 to switch the softball season to the spring, but the measure failed 216-117.

"It gets to be one of those things people get accustomed to playing in a certain time of year," Kindhart said.

Spring softball is still the most popular option for female athletes at area small schools, despite the drawbacks. Soccer is still in a growing period in Southeast Missouri and requires more players to be competitive than most small schools can generate. Track and field is the other spring option, but few area small schools have track teams. Bell City dropped softball to add track last year, and Scott County Central added track this year.

"I think there's plenty of schools, especially to the south that [will] still offer it," Sanders said. "Down south of here, it's still pretty big. I don't think it will go away."

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