Two players have cleats. The rest of the Marshall softball team plays in whatever shoes they wore to school that day.
They have one pair of batting gloves. The whole team, I’m saying. So when a batter reaches base, the on-deck hitter hustles over to get those gloves. It’s not as big a problem as you might think.
Marshall batters don’t get many hits.
“None of these girls had ever touched a softball before April,” Marshall coach Justin Flanagan was telling me Thursday. “We literally had to teach them how to throw, how to catch.”
The Marshall team that visited the best 3A team in the state on Wednesday, No. 1 New Palestine, was winless in eight games.
“We’d lost every game by the 10-run rule,” Flanagan says. “And most of the time by 20.”
This game Wednesday, it could have been ugly.
It was not.
* * *
When it was over, New Pal trainer Heather Campbell called her boss in tears.
“You won’t believe what happened tonight,” she told New Pal athletic director Al Cooper.
Where to begin? One day earlier, perhaps. At practice on Tuesday, New Pal coach Ed Marcum had prepared his players for a different kind of game – as much as anyone could prepare the state’s No. 1 team for a playoff game against an opponent that had been playing the sport just six weeks.
Neither Marcum nor his New Pal players could possibly know the hurdles Marshall had overcome just to field a team. It started with the Marshall coach, Justin Flanagan, a behavioral specialist at the IPS school who had never been a varsity coach before accepting the position.
On the boys side, Marshall didn’t field a baseball team this spring because of a lack of participation. It could have happened in softball, too.
“We had zero players when I took the job,” Flanagan says. “I asked kids to play by telling them: I don’t know how much we’re going to win, but we’re going to have the most fun of anyone.”
Ten girls, mostly freshmen and sophomores, took him up on it. Gloves are a high school player’s responsibility, but at Marshall the kids didn’t have gloves – so Flanagan rummaged through the Marshall athletic offices and found enough old gloves for his team. Baseball gloves mostly, stiff and crusty, the seams coming loose.
To the girls at Marshall, the gloves are beautiful.
“Even if some mitts are way too big for their little fingers,” Flanagan says.
But they’re hungry to learn, these girls at Marshall, and Flanagan calls them “the best athletes in the school. I wouldn’t trade them for a state championship, for the way these girls acted this year. Not once can any team we played say they got attitude, they got angry. They kept a positive attitude through every single inning.”
Flanagan and his assistant, Penelope Alexander, used enthusiasm and positivity to teach the game.
“Their favorite (practice) game was learning to catch pop flies,” Flanagan says. “I said, ‘If you guys catch 10 balls, we’ll have a pizza party tomorrow.’ ”
Flanagan had to spring for pizza twice this season.
* * *
It was the second inning when a Marshall player asked a question:
“Mr. Flanagan,” she said, “why are they cheering for us?”
She meant the other team’s fans. The home crowd at New Pal was rooting for its team, then for both teams, turning this Sectional 26 semifinal into something different, something bigger, something wonderful. The kids from Marshall, they were losing on the field but they were winning over the New Pal crowd. Winning by a landslide.
“I’ve never witnessed anything like it in all my years watching sports,” says Jeff Hokl, whose father-in-law is New Pal coach Ed Marcum. “The kids from Marshall taught everyone, from the parents to the athletes, what high school sports is really about.”
At one point New Pal hit a popup to the left side of the infield. The ball ricocheted off Marshall shortstop Daphney Scott and into the glove of quick-thinking third baseman Tamrah Ruiz.
“Everyone went berserk,” Flanagan says. “All game long, (New Pal fans) made my girls feel like a million bucks. I could almost cry thinking about it.”
New Pal’s parents were following the lead of their kids on the field. Fans could hear New Pal players on the base paths telling Marshall infielders where to throw it for the force out – even as the New Pal runner was trying to beat the ball there. This wasn’t charity. This was a combination of competition and instruction, with several sprinkles of fun. Between innings, the teams engaged in a dance-off.
Oh, and about the game’s ending …
There’s a story there. Well, two stories. First, the losing team, accustomed to its games being called after five innings, wanted to play more.
“They were asking me, ‘Mr. Flanagan, do we have to leave?’ ” Flanagan says. “’ Can’t we finish the seven innings?’ ”
Well, no. The game was called after 4½ innings – New Pal won 20-0; Marshall was hitless – but New Pal’s coach talked umpires into extending the top half of the fifth. The game couldn’t end just yet.
The New Pal parents weren’t back yet with ice cream.
The parents returned, the game ended and the teams lined up. New Pal’s players gave each of their Marshall counterparts a handshake and a treat from Frosty Boy Drive-In. The teams ate on the field while two New Pal parents gave Flanagan spare cleats they’d brought to the field.
Here’s what Al Cooper, the New Pal athletic director, calls his favorite part of the whole day:
“None of this was rehearsed ahead of time,” he says. “It just happened.”
On the bus ride home, Marshall players made a decision: They wanted to go Thursday to New Pal’s sectional championship game against Bishop Chatard. Alas, Flanagan couldn’t find transportation quickly enough for them to see New Pal beat Bishop Chatard 11-1.
New Pal plays at Lebanon on Tuesday for the regional title. No pressure, New Pal – but from here on out, you’re playing for two.
“My team feels like New Pal is an extension of us now, because of how (New Pal) treated them,” Flanagan says. “These girls are the best girls I ever met. The best girls. It breaks my heart that our season is over.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Readers: If you have spare softball equipment, please consider giving it to Marshall. You can call the school at (317) 693-5460 or email athletic director John Edge at email@example.com. This request is from IndyStar, not Marshall.