Student's pitch for middle school softball in Champaign finally connects

Student's pitch for middle school softball in Champaign finally connects

CHAMPAIGN — Three years ago, as she was entering sixth grade at Edison Middle School, Kathryn Currey went before the Unit 4 school board to make a case for adding girls' softball for the middle schools.

She had played Little League Baseball in C-U — primarily with boys — and later joined the Border Girls travel softball team.

"I really liked softball, and it was a big change from Little League," she said. "I thought it would be better for me socially playing with girls at my middle school."

The Champaign middle schools have been offering baseball for the last decade, and even though it was technically a co-ed sport at the schools, it wasn't functioning as such, Kathryn said.

"There might have been two or three girls ever who played on the baseball team," she said.

She received positive feedback from the board members but didn't see immediate action.

But on Monday morning, girls from Champaign's three public middle schools — Edison, Franklin and Jefferson — took to various softball fields around town to try out for their respective schools. All three will field teams this summer that will participate as members of the Illinois Elementary School Association.

"To hear that we were actually having softball and were able to incorporate softball district-wide is awesome," Edison head coach Michelle Anderson said after she put 20 players through a workout Monday at Dexter Field. "The district is excited, we're excited and so many people have been encouraging me."

The expectation — and the crux of Kathryn's pitch three years ago — is that having softball taught and fielded at the middle school level will increase the competitiveness of the two public high schools in Champaign which have not fielded competitive teams in recent years.

In the last decade, Centennial has captured one regional title, though it hasn't finished a season with a record of .500 or better during that time.

Across town at Central, the Maroons haven't won a regional title since 1981, and their last winning season came in 1994.

"My personal opinion is that's why there hasn't been much success," Anderson said. "A few girls play travel ball, but the numbers are so minute that in order to have the skill set needed to be successful, we needed to expand to our middle schools. I think this is going to take it to another level."

Not long after Kathryn's presentation, district administrators sent a survey to students to gauge interest in what sports they would like to be added.

"Softball ranked pretty high, so the district went through the steps to add it for all three middle schools," said Edison athletic director Jackie Borchardt. "The board approved it, and they were very much on board with it. We had a lot of support from the board and parents."

This school year, 286 middle schools across the state will field softball teams, up from 260 a year ago. In The News-Gazette's coverage area, 16 schools fielded teams in 2016-17, including Urbana Middle School, two in Danville and Champaign private school St. Matthew's.

The hope is in coming years the Champaign schools will be competitive with their Big 12 Conference counterparts who have been fielding softball teams for much longer.

The Bloomington-Normal area fields eight middle school teams, and Peoria has five.

Edison assistant coach Micaela Childress played high school softball at Heritage in Broadlands, which did not have a middle school program.

"I tend to think that's why we struggled because the girls that didn't play travel ball, when they came to high school, they didn't know much," she said. "This is when they learn the basics and get ready for high school, and that's what our main objective is."

Another benefit for the Champaign schools is that the girls will now have the ability to play the sport alongside their schoolmates, something that was missing in the travel-ball experience.

"In travel softball, I made friends, but school friends I get to talk about the games at school," said Edison eighth-grader Ainsley Holland. "With travel, I can't do that because my teammates go to St. Joe, so the only time I get to talk to them or see them is at the games."

Kathryn, who will be a freshman at Central this fall, won't get the opportunity to play middle school softball, but she sure is glad to see something she championed long ago come to fruition.

"I'm glad they have it now, and I think it could benefit me and the other girls already in the high school programs because the high schools will keep getting stronger because they have the opportunities in middle school now," she said.

Borchardt joked that the goal this year is to win a state championship at Edison.

They could be good sooner rather than later.

"Some girls didn't play softball because we didn't have a middle school program," Ainsley said. "Now, hopefully they start playing, and I really want us to have a good team."

Topics (2):Education, People