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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
When area schools changed from slowpitch to fastpitch softball, a boom in interest and talent ensued.
By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published May 17, 2005
Pitchers unleash 60 mph fastballs.
Power hitters slug titanic homers.
Many games are standing room only.
Two area teams - Palm Harbor University and Chamberlain - are nationally ranked. Dozens of area players annually earn college scholarships, many to some of the country's best programs. Twelve state champions from the Times' five-county coverage area (Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas) have been crowned in nine years.
In the bay area, softball is a big deal.
"The way the girls play the game is incredible," said Artie Vazquez, a longtime area umpire.
It wasn't always that way.
Vazquez, like many, remembers softball the way it used to be, back when pitches floated and hitters swung for the fences. Nobody bunted. Nobody slapped. Stealing wasn't allowed. Strategy wasn't needed.
"It was not really enjoyable to see the game," Vazquez said.
That was high school softball here, the slowpitch variety, as recently as the mid 1980s, before the Florida High School Athletic Association switched to fastpitch in 1988. Today's fast-paced brand of ball is unrecognizable in comparison, a constant chess match with players whizzing eye-boggling fastballs and executing hit-and-runs and sacrifice bunts to perfection.
"You're seeing a livelier game," said Riverview's Angie Slater, a coach for more than 20 years.
Florida softball has rapidly advanced in a relatively short time. Once a recruiting afterthought for the country's top fastpitch college programs, the state and the Tampa Bay area today is a hotbed for talent.
"It used to be that the schools in the east got the California rejects," Slater said. "Now, the kids here are filling Florida programs and going out of state."
Area products compete for six Southeastern Conference and three Atlantic Coast Conference squads. South Florida (eight) and Florida (five) feature the most, with programs from as far away as Hofstra (N.Y.) being represented. Citrus County is a good example of this area's strength. Not a prime spot for Division I products in other sports, the county has players at Mississippi, North Carolina and USF.
Local athletes are producing early and often.
USF freshman Bree Spence of Countryside is 20-13 and has led her squad to an NCAA Regional. Ditto for Auburn sophomore Beth DiPietro, a Riverview grad who is 22-7.
"Fifteen years ago, this wasn't even a recruiting area," said Plant coach Sallie Scudder, who played slowpitch for the Panthers in the mid '80s. "If a kid came out of here it was an anomaly."
Further proof of Florida's prominence can be found in USA Today 's Super 25 national ranking, which include five teams from the Sunshine State. That ties California and Texas, two traditionally strong states, for the most representation.
Palm Harbor U., at No.3, is the highest-ranked Florida program. The Hurricanes play No.22 Chamberlain at noon Friday at Tampa's Ed Radice Sports Complex in a Class 5A semifinal. The game will feature two of the state's top talents, Palm Harbor U. pitcher Dani Hofer, who will play for LSU, and Chamberlain slugger JoJo Medina, a USF recruit.
"In 1992, we took a (summer league team) to a national event and won a game or two for the first time," Chamberlain coach Bobby Diez said. "Back then, trying to beat California was the ultimate goal. This past summer we took an 18-and-under team to Colorado for a big exposure tournament where there were like 700 coaches. We finished ninth out of 90 teams and were as good as anybody. We've caught up."
Only a few area fastpitch youth leagues existed before the state ditched slowpitch, but after the FHSAA change the sport exploded. More leagues quickly sprouted and soon athletes played year round.
"They can compete with anybody in the country now," said JoAnne Graf, the coach at Florida State for 27 seasons. "Once the whole state switched over (to fastpitch), it progressed and really took off."
Colleges and junior colleges with slowpitch programs also made the change, and schools without teams began adding them. With more scholarships available more girls picked it up. Making teams got harder, and while coaches in some sports roam the halls looking for participants, softball seems to recruit itself.
"The teams that were winning 15 years ago still had tremendous athletes, but I don't know if you could say all eight or nine were (solid) like today," Slater said.
The game constantly evolves.
Dominant players such as Hofer can make it seem as though it's entirely a pitcher's game, but that isn't necessarily the case. After the switch to fastpitch, hitters at first struggled, which made 15-strikeout games a regular occurance. Eventually, though, they adjusted while also making use of the bunt and slaps (a chopping half-swing intented to put the ball into play). Strategy also became a larger part of the game.
"People caught on how to play," Diez said.
As the sport grew, kids made greater commitments to it. Youth teams travel across the state and throughout the country. Combining the 20 to 30 high school games with travel ball, kids annually can play 100 or more games.
"The biggest danger, as with everything in life, is making sure you take things in moderation," Scudder said. "One of the biggest concerns I have with 9 and 10-year-olds playing year round is that when they become high school age, there might be burnout. But that's not unique to softball."
Many players hope softball is their ticket to college.
"It's very competitive," said Hofer, who began playing when she was 7 and joined her first travel squad a year later. "Everybody is trying to achieve something ... getting a college scholarship."
With this, of course, comes added pressure.
Once little more than a pastime, the rise in skill and opportunity has made softball among the state's most competitive sports.
"All of (these college scholarships) have done is extend their playing opportunity four more years." Scudder said. "I still think there's a level of purity to the girls game in terms of why they play and how they play that is lost in the boys game."