Competitive fire remains high in rec league softball

Melinda Kirby lofts a pitch toward the plate during a Parks & Rec softball game on Monday at Everett Park.

Photo by Jenifer Clark

Melinda Kirby lofts a pitch toward the plate during a Parks & Rec softball game on Monday at Everett Park.

Gretchen Prugh and Marcia Hiltabidle could hardly be more different.

There were no scholarships for women’s softball when Hiltabidle went to college. Her high school in Silver Springs, Md., didn’t even field a team. Title IX wouldn’t be signed into law for another eight years at that point. Monica Abbott hadn’t even been born.

Prugh, by contrast, was one of the state’s most feared pitchers her senior year at Maryville. She struck out 24 batters in one 11-inning state tournament game that season. She signed a Division I scholarship with the University of Kentucky after high school. She was, by all accounts, one of Blount County’s finest ever players.

Prugh left Maryville eight years ago. Hiltabidle is 64. And she can fly.

“They don’t know how old I am until my husband blabs it out,” the retired Crossville physical therapist said.

Prugh’s powerhouse Hit & Run team completed an undefeated run to the Maryville-Alcoa-Blount County Parks & Recreation B League first-half championship Everett Park. Hiltabidle’s Memorial Funeral Home club finished middle of the table in the top division A League.

Different paths may have brought them to Blount County’s softball diamonds, but their love for the game and why they play is no different from the players on the league’s other 49 teams.

“It’s something where you can still be competitive and have fun,” Prugh said. “It’s something you’ve grown up with and can always come back to.”

“You know,” Hiltabidle said, “it’s just fun.”

Twice a week Hiltabidle makes the 90 minute drive from Crossville with her husband, Steve, a retired police officer, to one of parks & recreation’s seven fields. She’d met Memorial’s Anna Bright and Neak Merriman Alexander during a Senior Games tournament years back.

They’d told Hiltabidle about the Blount County league and extended an invitation to join the team. Despite the commute it would entail, Hiltabidle said she jumped at the chance.

“They’re just a great bunch of women,” she said.

Age varies on men’s and women’s teams in all divisions. Along with Bright, Alexander and Hiltabidle, Memorial has recent high school graduates Lara and Courtney Alexander of William Blount and former Maryville third baseman Stephanie Paul, a Lady Rebel teammate of Prugh’s.

There’s the husband and wife pairing of Jeremy and Amy Whaley, who play for different teams and can see the schedule send them to different parks on a given night. It can be tough when you’re trying to raise two small boys, Amy said.

“I said, ‘This is going to be my last year,’” she said, “but I’ve been saying that for five years. I don’t know what we’d do in the summer if we weren’t at a ball park.”

That fits players like Paul. A player with quick hands and a powerful throwing arm at Maryville, the former Lady Rebel played collegiately at Union College.

Afterward, her love for the game did anything but diminish, so Paul didn’t just join one slow-pitch team. She joined several, at one point traveling to games four nights a week.

After work, “I just changed into my stuff in the car,” she said.

Parks & Rec superintendent of athletics Chris Clark said the league does all it can to accommodate the working lives of its players. Games start no earlier than 6 p.m. on weekdays. The league remains somewhat flexible when it comes to rosters. It’s not uncommon for a team to pick up a player on given night to fill out a lineup car, Lara Alexander said.

“If you need a player, you can call us,” she said. “If we need a player, we’ll call you. Life happens.”

When you’re scheduling 16 games a night, some wiggle room is necessary, Clark said.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “We understand people’s work schedules. We just try to keep things even.”

The slumping economy in recent years has impacted the league, down almost 50 teams the last two seasons, but, with 49 teams and 15-player roster limits, “That’s still a lot of people in Blount County that still like to play softball,” Clark said.

And, as Prugh alluded to, the upcoming Smoky Mountain Classic, one of the nation’s premiere tournaments for slow-pitch softball, doesn’t have the market cornered when it comes to being competitive.

“I don’t care if you’re playing in the backyard with family, you’ve GOT to win,” said former William Blount High School basketball star Shelly Webb Milligan, whose Wolfe’s Red team finished second in the first half A League standings.

While hoops would be her ticket to college, Webb has more in common with many of the league’s current players than you might think.

“After you can’t play fast-pitch anymore, you just roll right into the slow-pitch world,” Courtney Alexander said.

It’s not easy, she said. The greatly-reduced speed and arc of the ball in slow-pitch can lead to some embarrassing strikeouts, she said.

“I still do,” she said.

The changeup should definitely be outlawed in slow-pitch, she said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. For many men’s players, the switch from high school or college baseball to slow-pitch can be no laughing matter.

El Sazon/Blount Wrecker finished in a three-way tie atop the Men’s A League, with Tomahawk claiming the first-half championship ahead of B & H Sales and El Sazon by virtue of fewest runs allowed. B & H and El Sazon share the same sponsor. The cooperative will field a team, Dead Ball Out/Blount Wrecker, in next week’s Smoky Mountain Classic.

Four El Sazon players were college baseball teammates at Carson-Newman, affording manager Michael Graves an awfully athletic lineup for softball. The team has former Maryville College record-holder and Alcoa High School standout Chucky Yates running the bases. Yates set an NCAA record for stolen bases during his career as a Scot.

In the outfield, El Sazon has former Greenback speedster Trey Helton running down fly balls.

“He’s a real threat to watch in the outfield,” Graves said.

Mike Milligan, whose brother, Derrick, also plays for the team, “hits it as good as anybody you’d want to see around here,” Graves said.

Like many league teams, El Sazon takes the show on the road most weekends. His club has won three such tournaments so far this season, Graves said, but there’s an aspect of the local league that tourney softball simply can’t match.

“There’s actually a huge difference between playing A League in Maryville and traveling to play on the weekend,” Graves said. “In a lot of the leagues, the fields are right there together. I think Blount County is better because you get to play on different fields at different parks.”

The competition factor rises dramatically on road trips, he said.

“When we go play on the weekend, we’re there an hour before the game warming up,” Graves said. “It’s serious.”

Then, he said, there’s the Classic.

Area teams simply can’t match the million dollar budgets, and home run power that comes with it, the nation’s top amateur teams can wield, Graves said. Dead Ball Out/Blount Wrecker has held its own the last few years at Blount County’s three-day, super-softball festival, but Graves holds no illusions of knocking defending champion Resmondo from its perch.

“We’ve done pretty good the last few year in the Classic,” he said. “When you’re playing teams like that, they’re going to hit their home runs. They key is you’ve got to make the plays you can make when they keep the ball in the ball park. It is a hitter’s game, but you win ball games with plays on defense.

“The key for local teams is to not try to play their game.”

Different backgrounds, different skill levels, players in rec league softball can run the gamut, Hiltabidle said.

“There are some girls out here who are so good, so strong and so fast,” she said. “I can’t compete with that, and I’m not trying to.”

Perhaps Memorial’s Sharon Huskey said it best. Huskey goes way back with area adult league softball. The Maryville High School graduate played on the first female team, the Tomboys, parks & rec ever sanctioned.

The competition, the camaraderie, both are reasons players continue to flock to the leagues year after year, Huskey said, but you really don’t have to go that far with it.

“I love this game,” she said.

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