Reaction to the Kentucky High School Athletic Association’s latest recommendation on softball face masks has been mixed.
On July 14, the KHSAA’s Board of Control voted to recommend that fast-pitch softball pitchers and corner infielders wear protective face masks. The board did not vote to mandate the masks and will leave the decision ultimately to the discretion of coaches, players and parents.
This has been a polarizing issue for years, and it took another turn this past season when East Jessamine High School pitcher Haylee Hamm was injured by a line drive. Her father, East Jessamine head coach Tom Hamm, immediately took efforts to reinvigorate the conversation regarding player safety.
Highlands High School was playing in the tournament in which Hamm was injured. The Bluebirds did not witness the play that broke Hamm’s nose and orbital bone, but were affected by the play nonetheless. Highlands coach Rob Coffey wishes the KHSAA Board would have gone one step further and required the face masks for pitchers, while allowing first and third basemen to make their own choice.
“A pitcher only has a half-second to go from thinking about pitching aggressively to defending,” Coffey said. “If an infielder chooses to play in, she is already in a defensive mode and mindset.”
Coffey encourages his starting pitcher, Bailey Spencer, to wear a mask, but realizes that it is ultimately up to the player.
Other coaches feel there should be uniformity between baseball and softball players. Walton-Verona head coach Marlin Gregg does not believe that softball players should required to wear the masks unless the KHSAA also requires the same of baseball players. He will leave it up to his players, but will not encourage them to wear the masks.
“They have to follow the rules in order to play and if it is not a rule they will not wear them unless it is a parent or player choice,” said Gregg.
Some players are reluctant to wear the masks, while others benefit from the added protection. Campbell County’s players already wear the masks.
“It certainly gives most girls confidence in the field,” Camels head coach Sandi Kitchen said. “As a parent and a coach, I feel it is the right decision to make the masks mandatory. Any way we can keep a catastrophic injury from happening is a positive move.”
The discrepancy among talent levels is noticeable in Kentucky softball. Teams of all sizes play one another, and some teams start seventh-graders on the varsity, who must face experienced seniors. That just adds to the danger.
“We used to play football without face masks. Our game has evolved, too,” said Coffey. “The athletes now are ridiculous.”
Kitchen estimates the ball can reach the pitcher in about 1.2 seconds. That is not a lot of time to react to a hard-hit softball. Newport Central Catholic head coach Denny Barnes also believes the masks should be mandatory and will encourage his players to wear them. Kitchen agrees if the KHSAA had required masks, players would not be able to object.
“I do know that some players do not wear them because it might be a sign of weakness,” Kitchen said. “So, if it’s mandatory it would take the decision out of their hands.”
Coaches, most of whom also happen to be parents of softball players, also pointed to the expensive dental work that could be avoided if players wear face masks. They have to battle with players who do not want to adapt to the added constraints of the mask as well as the perception that college coaches may interpret wearing the mask as a sign of weakness.
For most coaches, the pros of wearing the mask far outweigh the cons. Even coaches like Gregg, who do not believe the masks should be mandatory, acknowledge that they could make a difference “in case of a freak accident.” Even if the likelihood of an injury is minimal, the protection that a face mask provides could potentially save a life.
“If it can save one life, it’s worth it,” said Coffey. “That’s a father’s worst nightmare, let alone a coach’s worst nightmare.”