Last week, Tim Goodman and Laurie Turney hosted the “Vineyard Dynamite Softball Clinic,” a free, three-day clinic for girls age seven to 17, at the MVRHS softball field. A group of about 15 girls worked on their batting, fielding and running skills, under the guidance of coaches Ryann Gold, Martha Scheffer, Samantha Burns, and Veronika Buckley, and high school “ambassadors” Micheli Lynn, Emily Turney, Hailee McCarthy, Shelby Lavin, Miranda Tokarz, and Sarah Strem. Home grown Martha’s Vineyard Shark stars Tad Gold and Jack Roberts also volunteered their time. On Tuesday night, Ken Eriksen, head softball coach at the University of South Florida and the United States national team, made a special guest appearance. After a rousing talk about the importance of discipline on and off the field, Coach Eriksen spent the evening giving specialized pitching instruction.
The Dynamite Softball Clinic is part of an ongoing campaign by Mr. Goodman and Ms. Turney to breathe new life into the Island girls softball scene, which at present barely registers a pulse. Only the women’s summer slow-pitch league, now in its ninth season, has continued to thrive.
Softball in a slumpOver the past 10 years, softball participation has declined dramatically — to the point where next year, the junior high program will be dropped entirely. The Babe Ruth league (ages 8–16 ) that once fielded 16 teams, no longer exists. The only organized fast-pitch softball left on the Island is the MVRHS team, but the situation there isn’t much better. This year, the varsity only had 11 girls on the roster — just two more than the required league minimum needed to field a team. The J.V. squad had only ten players. Only four freshmen tried out for the team. At the end of last season, Coach Don Herman seriously contemplated resigning, and he said he was “very afraid” of the future of the sport on the Island. He has since decided to stay on.
Mr. Goodman and Ms. Turney, both parents of MVRHS players, are dedicating their time and money to keep softball alive on the Island. Last week’s Dynamite Softball Clinic was an idea they hatched during the long trips and boat rides home from their daughters’ games.
“I’m just relieved it didn’t rain,” said Mr. Goodman, setting out a copious amount of food for the girls and firing up two grills in the bed of his pick-up. “We worked really hard on this.”
Mr. Goodman’s daughter, Micheli Lynn, played four years at MVRHS, and will play softball at Roger Williams College. He believes softball played a crucial role in her success. “Softball’s been really important to my daughter and her growth on the Vineyard. When she was about eight years old, she was bored with the horse thing, then she played little league and she was in heaven. I’ve seen her and her friends play together for a long time. It’s amazing to watch these girls discover their abilities: you see that moment where self esteem soars. I want kids beyond my own daughter to have a chance at that.”
Laurie Turney played softball at MVRHS (class of ’88). Her daughter Emily, aka E.T., was named to the all-Eastern Athletic Conference team this year as a freshman. Ms. Turney tried to revive the sport two years ago with an Babe Ruth travel team.
“We started a team in the U-14 (under 14 years old) because that was where we had the most interest,” she said. “In the beginning we had 20 players, but it dwindled pretty quickly to 10. So last summer, we just did clinics.”
Ms. Turney has been taking Emily to off-Island clinics for years, taking notes, and bringing her knowledge back to the Island, which was on display this night with well-organized circuit training.
“It’s incredible, what these guys are doing,” said MVRHS coach Donald Herman in a telephone interview with The Times. “They’re giving Island girls a chance to play and learn the game. Outside of high school, there’s no leagues anymore; they’re the only game in town.”
Nationwide, girls softball is doing quite well. Last year, 14,142 high schools had softball programs, with 367,023 girls participating. After a 13 percent jump in ratings of women’s college softball in 2012, ESPN expanded their coverage of the division one championship to 97 games this year.
But it’s a different story on the Island.
“Softball has taken a real hit on the Vineyard,” Mr. Goodman said. “Our job is to turn that around. Softball is America’s game. It’s so alive and well across the country, and in Massachusetts. Our girls shouldn’t be excluded from that.”
Lacrosse exodusThe arrival of girls lacrosse in 1993 was a game-changer for softball. Opinions vary on whether the change is permanent.
“At some point lacrosse is going to level off.” said coach Herman. “You have 65 girls on a team and you can only play 20 or so, I think some girls will get tired of that. But there’s just not as many kids in the schools. We’ll probably never see the number of students again that we saw in the early 2000s.”
Anne Lemenager, former athletic director, field hockey, girls basketball, and softball coach, and teacher at MVRHS for 33 years, was on hand to cover the clinic for MVTV. She thinks the state of softball is part of an unpredictable ebb and flow that she saw in her many years of coaching. “Basketball numbers are down, there was no freshman team, girls soccer numbers are down, but hockey and lacrosse are up.” she said. “There were times the tennis team only fielded seven players, which is what you need to play a match. It’s girl athletes: it comes in waves. There’s a lot of girls who can play.”
On the next field over, the girls field hockey team was having a Tuesday evening summer gathering, an Island tradition that goes back to a time before these girls were born.
Sports on the Vineyard cuts both ways: the isolation of an island limits the population and the talent pool, and it also limits the options of young people seeking an adrenaline rush. Island sports history, for both boys and girls, is full of storied chapters. But unless you count ice boxing — the legendary Craig Kingsbury was 12-time champion — no sport on the Island has ever died out before. Right now, girls softball is on the brink.
Mr. Goodman and Ms. Turney are determined not to let that happen.
“We just keep asking ourselves, how do we make it more fun?” said Mr. Goodman. “How do we make it more attractive. We don’t know, we’re flailing about, but we’re trying to do something. Between the two of us, there’s a lot of tenacity. And we’re having a lot of fun, too.”
As an added incentive, the Dynamite Clinic offered girls who attended all three nights a free trip to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, the site of one of the greatest comebacks to ever take place on a baseball diamond.
Maybe Mr. Goodman and Ms. Turney will inspire another one.