While medals awarded in most sports at this week’s Summer Games will follow their winners throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, the hardware from softball will remain entirely on the Avalon Peninsula.
Five of the 10 teams competing in fastpitch softball — boys and girls — in the first half of the Games are representing the Avalon region. The others are a pair of male and female entries from both Mount Pearl/South and St. John’s/North, and a host boys’ team.
“It isn’t as attractive as it once was,” says Paul Smith Jr., this week’s softball technical director.
“Even for a one-off event such as the (Games), where the different regions can just put together an all-star team and walk on in.”
Entering teams in softball is less appealing partly because the Avalon teams are made up of most of the best players in the province, which often results in a sometimes demoralizing fastpitch experience.
“If you’ve only played one or two games of fastpitch going in, and (end up) playing a team like Goulds, Conception Bay Central or Placentia, knowing you’re going to get beaten badly and struggle through, it isn’t an easy sell,” explains Smith, who saw it happen at the last 2008 Games in Corner Brook, where the Western and Labrador teams were trounced by stronger squads.
It all comes back to Softball Newfoundland and Labrador’s own struggle to grow the game outside historically strong centres. The interest, anyone within the provincial association will confirm, is simply not there.
Ahead of the Games, Smith reached out to individuals in the Western, Labrador and Central regions, but “had no biters.”
“In some cases, people I spoke to were ones who’ve been involved in the game at different levels for a lot of years… have gotten a lot out of the game, fastpitch and slo-pitch. I’m sure in a couple of those cases they could have given a little more back.”
Growing the game, Smith contends, starts with getting adults taking the time to learn the finer points of instruction so they can take the necessary time to pass it on to the kids in a way that will keep them engaged.
“As far as I’m concerned — and I see this as phys-ed teacher as well — kids are willing to play just about anything you put in front of them as long as you’re enthusiastic enough about it,” he insists.
Over the last number of years, SNL has offered to bring its programs around the island in effort to reach coaches and athletes alike, “but it’s been falling on deaf ears in a lot of cases.”
“The resources are there. All we need are other people willing to work with us,” says Smith.
Normally, Games policy states at least five participating regions are required in a given sport to warrant keeping it in on the program. But Smith says Sport Newfoundland and Labrador, not wanting to remove a staple sport, made an exception for softball.
As for whether the same will be true in C.B.S. in 2016, Smith speculates there could be other sports with growing demographics that could challenge for a spot and force softball out.
As for the possibility of replacing fastpitch with slo-pitch at the Games, Smith suggests SNL probably wouldn’t be on board with that move as it goes against Softball Canada’s long-term player development program.
“In the teenage years, it emphasizes fastpitch. Slo-pitch, although it has it’s place and is a great entry point for kids, is not where we want to be when we’re trying to showcase the sport at the Games,” says Smith.
“Once you go down that road, I don’t think you’ll ever get back.”
Not having all regions represented at the Summer Games does make for some great competition this weekat the John Goff Fields in Carbonear.
“While we hope we’re not in jeopardy of losing our position in the Games, this kind of competition actually highlights our better players and our more skilled teams and creates a lot more excitement for them,” says Smith.
In 2008, Games qualifiers kept Waterford Valley (St. John’s/North) and C.B.C. (Avalon) — two of the top four boys teams on the island at the time — from making the trip to Corner Brook.
“It’s unfortunate other areas of the province aren’t represented, but when areas that are alive and well can’t get their teams in because of policy, that’s sort of a letdown,” explains Smith.
“We’re happy with the way it turned out, we just hope it doesn’t cost us in the long run.”
Note: Should Avalon claim multiple medals in boys and girls, even in the event of a sweep, only one will count towards’ region medal total and Premier’s Cup points.