Where have softball girls gone?

For various reasons, fewer of them are coming out for the sport.

Published May 8, 2007

Samantha Dyal watches most innings through the dugout fence.

The Pasco freshman gave nine years to youth softball and was one of 18 girls to make the varsity team. But her best moments are usually played out at practice.

Dyal's season could have been different - she would have likely been a starter if Pasco High - which plays Wednesday in the Class 4A final four - had been able to field a junior varsity team.

"I really wanted to play so it's kind of disappointing just a little bit, " Dyal said. "I know a lot of girls that could have come out and helped us make a JV team, but they didn't come out."

And they aren't coming out at schools across Pasco and Hernando counties. Of the 14 varsity softball teams that fielded JV teams in 2006, only seven were able to in 2007. There simply weren't enough girls to fill rosters.

No one knows if this is a trend signaling a decline in female participation, but some school officials have reported drops in the number of girls playing in youth leagues.

Coaches have theories on the decline, while advocates for women's sports warn critics to inspect the system before sounding the alarm. Still, some worry JV softball here could simply disappear.

"It could happen, " Zephyrhills athletic director and softball coach Craig Milburn said. "I think this next year is going to play a big role in the decision of what we're Zephyrhills is going to do."

Participation has gone down each year

Lack of interest, poor academics, discipline issues, injuries and financial hardships were all cited as reasons for drops in participation, which affected all types of teams.

Dyal said she has plenty of friends who choose other activities.

"(The older girls are) too into hanging out with all of their friends doing lazy stuff like watching TV, " Dyal said. "Softball consumes a lot of my time."

Gulf High coach Rick Hohenthaner almost pulled his JV team after just 25 girls tried out for softball this year - compared with 55 girls three years ago.

Hohenthaner said he saw warnings when West Pasco Little League dropped four of its eight teams in the late 1990s.

"The numbers (this season) seemed like they were lower than in any other time, " Hohenthaner said. "When five of your 10 (public) schools don't carry a JV program that's pretty scary."

Pasco County is wrestling with a shifting population growth, which led to the construction of three high schools in three years.

That creates problems in other ways, though.

Wesley Chapel lost a chunk of its players to first-year neighbor Wiregrass Ranch, leaving both programs without JV teams. Some think the same will happen to Land O'Lakes' when Sunlake opens in August.

Zephyrhills also saw a decline in participation, ending its season with 16 varsity players after having a combined 26 the year before.

Nature Coast athletic director Jason Montgomery said the Sharks varsity finished the season with 13 kids only after they found more athletes to fill in for injured players.

Even former Central athletic director John Sedlack felt the pinch last year before accepting his new post at River Ridge.

"The numbers were dwindling year by year, " Sedlack said. "The last two years we had 11 or 12 girls on the (varsity)."

Specialization in sports, crossover in seasons and poor promotion at youth levels were other reasons blamed for a decline.

There are other options for girls, including several travel teams and various Little League and Dixie League teams throughout the area. Some girls prefer to stick it out on a varsity team even if it means riding the bench.

Hudson coach Crissy Cooper thinks the seasons she went without a JV team could hurt her down the road.

"The couple of years we didn't have the JV program the girls that got cut from varsity didn't have the experience, " Cooper said. "I kept more last year than I did this year. Some of those girls didn't get to play. When you see potential you don't want to let them go."

The same was true at River Ridge.

"I have three kids that would have been catching, throwing and fielding rather than sitting on my bench, " River Ridge coach Ernie Beck said.

"But you've got to have the numbers. I think JV serves a purpose. It's for training and bringing the kids along."

All feel impact of fewer players

Fewer JV teams also mean a smaller pool of opponents.

"We were scrambling to get games, " Land O'Lakes athletic director Chuck Moehle said.

JV programs are sometimes forced to shorten a 12-game schedule, leading to long breaks. Gulf's JV had one stretch with three weeks between games and managed to finish with 11 games after adding an out-of-area tournament.

"We would have fallen to eight without that tournament, " Hohenthaner said. "We had to go with a schedule that was exciting and aggravating."

Number of players may be rebounding

Dr. Marj Snyder, who is the chief program officer for the Women's Sports Foundation warns not to assume girls are no longer interested in softball.

She first wonders about adequate feeder systems.

There are several youth leagues in both counties, and a new league opening in Wesley Chapel.

Teams in Hudson Little League have always struggled with participation. Tom Deed, a board member of the West Pasco Little League said the decline of girls in the 1990s appears to be reversing.

"We had an absence of coaches for three or four years, " Deed said. "It's starting to rebound. We had a stronger turnout this year. I think it's going to start picking up."

Dade City Little League president Chris Webb, who also coaches Wiregrass Ranch, said participation has dropped from 700 kids in 2004-05 to a little more than 500 last year. She expects that number to dip below 500 this year.

Webb said the league thrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"Then there was a decline, " she said. "Travel ball came on the horizon and travel ball has increased their enrollment in the last seven years. We were having to bump up against them. It's tough to do because that's where the college coaches are going."

Webb, who has been affiliated with the DCLL for 29 years, also noticed a move to specialization in sports.

"Some of my softball kids are going to basketball camps, " Webb said. "Some of them won't be out. It used to be we were the only game in town, it's just not that way anymore. Dade City has really seen a decline."

Still, no one thinks JV softball will go missing any time soon. Some coaches point to areas of hope in both counties.

Wesley Chapel athletic director Steve Mumaw said he's optimistic a newly formed Wesley Chapel Little League in his will draw in more girls at an early age.

"As coaches we can get out there and beat the bushes so to speak, " Webb said. "We can make it more attractive to come out and play. You have to go out and talk to them."

Hohenthaner networks through the youth leagues and thinks he could add as many as 25 players during the next three seasons. He also thinks Mitchell, River Ridge and Gulf should be in good shape.

"I don't see my numbers dropping, if anything going up slightly, " Hohenthaner said.

Izzy Gould can be reached at igould@tampabay.com or (727) 580-5315.