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The State Journal- Register (Springfield, IL)

 

When Williamsville (Ill.) High School senior softball pitcher Payton Long was struck in the shoulder by a batted ball in a game against Taylorville this spring, she admittedly was "a little shocked.

"You never think you'll get drilled by a line drive. But the higher up you go (in competition level), the pitches come in harder and the bats, it's crazy how much power they have.

"I've taken line drives off my legs, but never up top close to my face."

Long, a standout who's committed to the University of Illinois Springfield, does not wear a protective mask. While masks have become more common among high school pitchers and infielders, Long said she "just couldn't get used to pitching" while wearing a mask when she tried it a few years ago.

But perhaps influenced by the near-miss against Taylorville, Long might be reconsidering her stance.

"Maybe for college, if the coach asked me to try wearing one, I'd try," said Long, who'll help lead the Bullets into Class 2A regional play this week.

"With younger kids, if I was their mom, for sure I'd make them wear one."

Until a few years ago, the only high school player on the softball field wearing a mask was the catcher. That changed somewhat when protective masks were added to batting helmets.

But in recent years, a high school game might see the pitcher - and sometimes some of her infielders - sporting protective masks of their own on the field.

Many coaches believe a combination of softball's smaller field dimensions and modern bats that can launch line drives at higher velocity can make the pitcher and infielders - especially first basemen and third basemen - more vulnerable to injury.

According to a May 19, 2017, Newsday story, Washington State University's Sports Science Laboratory studied the impact generated when an aluminum bat meets a pitched softball. WSU professor Lloyd Smith said a 70-mph batted-ball speed (representing a hard-hit ball at the high school level) would reach the pitcher in 0.375 seconds.

The Illinois High School Association has yet to make masks mandatory for softball pitchers or infielders. But as New Berlin High School coach Brian Bandy noted, "I expect we will see it mandated within five years."

The minutes of last August's annual meeting of the IHSA Softball Advisory Committee stated, "The committee reviewed feedback and recommendations from many coaches throughout the state in favor of mandating masks."

But for now, the IHSA wants a mask that meets safety standards required by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) before making them mandatory.

"Masks are optional by rule and recommended by the (advisory) committee," read the August 2017 IHSA minutes. "Currently, there is not a NOCSAE approved mask therefore masks are not required by rule."

But some coaches already have made the masks mandatory for their players. Others have urged the use of masks, but they've left the final decision up to the players and their parents.

"I require all of my pitchers and infielders to wear masks; it's not up for discussion," said Dallas Whitford, coach of the Calvary/Lutheran co-op team.

"At the end of a pitcher's stride, they are less than 40 feet from the plate. The bases are only 60 feet (apart). Hard-hit balls can knuckle or have spin on them that can cause a player to misjudge or miss them."

Whitford and North Mac coach Alan Love witnessed an injury that influenced their attitudes about masks.

In a junior high-level game between Calvary and North Mac not quite a decade ago, North Mac pitcher Anya Riffey was struck in the head by a line drive. Her father, Michael Riffey, said Anya suffered a severe concussion, missed over a month of school and experienced memory problems.

Now a senior at UIS, Anya is on schedule to earn her degree. But her father said Anya never returned to softball although she did play basketball at North Mac.

"Ultimately, I told my middle school pitchers and corner (first and third base) infielders they had to wear masks," said Love, noting that corner infielders often play "in" to guard against bunts or slap hits.

"I've told my high school players I'd really prefer they wear them. I wish they were just required. In high school, the pitching rubber is 43 feet away. In junior high, it's 40 feet. When the pitcher finishes, she's a lot closer than that, and the ball comes back so quick.

"Some pitchers say (the mask) kind of blocks their vision. But if they used them in middle school, they'd be more used to them in high school."

Earlier this season, Mount Zion pitcher Ally Bruner wasn't as lucky as Long. Bruner, who wasn't wearing a mask, was struck by a batted ball just above her right eye.

According to a story in the Decatur Herald and Review, Bruner was taken to Memorial Medical Center in Springfield. Three titanium plates and 25 screws were needed to repair the damage.

Bruner still is committed to pitch at the University of Tennessee-Martin and, according to the Herald and Review, plans to wear a mask when she's back in the pitcher's circle.

"Knowing all the pain I went through, I definitely would suggest masks be mandatory now because I don't think anyone should ever go through this," Bruner told the Herald and Review. "It's hard and it's rough on your parents, too. It's not worth all this damage."

Rochester coach Lindsay Howard said her attitude about masks has changed over the years, partially because the ball seems to come off the bat "hotter" than it used to.

"When the idea of wearing a mask came out, I personally thought, 'Why would you wear one of those? Don't be scared of the ball,' " said Howard, who noted all of her pitchers and infielders now wear masks of their own volition.

"After seeing how softball bats have changed the game, I realize it was pretty ignorant of me to think that way. It isn't about being scared of the ball. It's about protecting yourself on the chance you can't react quick enough."

Longtime Chatham Glenwood coach Vondel Edgar said he's definitely not "anti-mask," and the Titans require their pitchers to wear them. He leaves it up to his infielders and their parents whether they wear masks.

Edgar said he would comply if the IHSA made masks mandatory for infielders.

But he admits to some ambiguous feelings about masks as they relate to fielding skills.

"I'm not sure if a mask is a distraction," Edgar said. "Maybe the kids can't see the ball as well.

"But if you put it in the kids' minds, 'This ball can hurt you,' it can make them fearful of the ball. I would never tell a kid not to wear a mask, but if you're wearing one, there should be no fear.

"Even if there's a bad hop, you should keep your head in there. ... There's a toughness required for every sport. You don't want kids to get hurt, but in soccer they're always heading the ball. In football, you're getting tackled. In basketball, you take an elbow or draw a charge.

"But if my (coaching) peers say, 'This is what we're going to do (with masks),' then that's what we'll do."

Contact Dave Kane: 788-1544, dave.kane@sj-r.com, twitter.com/davekaneSJR.

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