Kroner: To wear or not to wear a mask?

Before it's known which colleges might want to recruit Amber Tabeling to play softball, the Tuscola High School freshman has one less school on her list to consider.

Her father, Ryan, said it was not a tough decision.

Amber Tabeling is a pitcher and an outfielder.

"When she pitches," Ryan Tabeling said, "she wears a facemask."

It's a requirement of Tuscola coach Lenny Sementi, and that's not a problem for Ryan Tabeling and his wife.

"We support that decision 100 percent," Ryan Tabeling said.

There are people who feel differently. Tabeling recalls sending his daughter to a camp on a college campus and hearing a conversation that took place.

"I heard the coach say they wouldn't recruit a girl who wore a facemask because it showed they're scared of the ball," Ryan Tabeling said.

"First, I was shocked. Secondly, I said, 'That's easy. We can check that school off our list.' "

To this day, Tabeling doesn't want to believe that attitude is prevalent among coaches.

"The safety of the athletes should be first and foremost," he said.

"Facemasks may be unconventional, but so was the fact that baseball coaches in college had to wear helmets. Unfortunately, that movement had to take place after the fatality of a coach (35-year-old Mike Coolbaugh in 2007 from Tulsa's minor league team). I'd hate for the IHSA to have to step in after a tragedy."

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UI softball coach Terri Sullivan has no players who wear masks while in the field, but she said it wouldn't affect whether she'd recruit a high schooler.

"A player is a player my eyes," Sullivan said. "I look at skills, attributes like athleticism, and attitude."

As for her personal opinion on the issue, Sullivan believes families, coaches or schools should be able to make decisions.

"I think wearing masks at a younger level has to be preference and comfort on a case-by-case basis," she said. "That's a choice for a family to make for their daughter or, if a coach feels it's best, I'd put trust with the people working with the kids."

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Sullivan believes there's less of a need for collegiate players to wear masks in the field because of decisions made by the governing body.

"A couple years ago, there were some serious injuries, mainly to pitchers, when balls were crushed up the middle," Sullivan said. "Our rules and championships committees focused on the bats and mandated that now in the Big Ten we have tests before every home series. They are tested for compression and how the balls come off the bats."

Bats that were fine and permissible in March may be taken out of use by the end of April after extensive use.

"We've had that happen," Sullivan said. "As bats were getting hot, because of how much they are used, it can get to a point where now they are considered illegal."

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Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley's Jim Lewis is one of the high school coaches who feels stronger about requiring masks.

Though none of his squad members this year wears them in the field, Lewis said, "I am becoming more of a believer that masks are necessary for corner infielders. I think it will be like when the seat belt law came into effect (1985 in Illinois), some people will be resistant to the change, but will realize the necessity."

Rantoul coach Travis Flesner said it took first-hand experience for him to institute a policy.

"Last season Jamie Hedrick took a line drive off the forehead, and I implemented from that point forward: no pitcher would ever take the mound again without the mask," Flesner said.

This season, he extended his mandate to include first and third basemen.

"Next season, it will be the entire infield," he said.

There was some reluctance, but Flesner requested that his players see it through his eyes.

"I asked them to put themselves in my position," he said. "How can I live with myself if you were seriously injured for the rest of your life when I could have prevented it?"

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Flesner pointed out that the IHSA has required batters to not only wear helmets, but also to have face guards while at the plate.

"A pitcher throws roughly 50 to 60 mph and the batter is required to wear a helmet with a mask," he said, "but the ball coming off the bat is way faster than a pitcher is throwing, yet the pitcher or infielders who are sometimes 35 feet away do not have to wear protective gear.

"That seems backwards to me."

Estimates are that a batted ball can travel about 110 mph after contact. "I could imagine anywhere from 85 to 100 mph for high school players," said Skaggs, who has researched the point to reinforce why he believes masks should be required.

Centennial coach George Hendricks said simply because fans see few collegians wearing masks in the infield, they shouldn't assume the same rules apply for high school and youth-league athletes.

"High school players are not as advanced athletically as a college athlete and therefore can not respond as quickly," Hendricks said. "I think it is only a matter of time before the IHSA will require third basemen, first basemen and pitchers to wear them."

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As area schools such as Westville and Schlarman urge the IHSA to require the use of masks by some or all of the girls on the infield, there are coaches who are not convinced that is the way to go.

"I'm sure I'm in the minority, but I feel they don't need them," Monticello coach Courtney Hoffman said. "I guess I'm old-school, but they have a glove. How much more protection do they need? None of my girls wear them and I don't feel they need them. I definitely don't think that the IHSA should mandate a policy for masks."

Blue Ridge coach Wayne Brown is not opposed to players wearing masks, but he would be against forcing them to do so.

"I think it should be left up to a school's discretion," he said. "As much as we would like to, we cannot protect our athletes from every possible injury. If they want to wear one, I encourage them to wear it.

"Some of the infields we play on are not the best, so they will have some bad hops and I think the mask gives them a little more confidence."

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Even though the pitching rubber was moved from 40 feet to 43 feet for the 2009-10 season — in theory to give pitchers more time to react — Tuscola softball coach Lenny Sementi has noticed another consequence.

"They moved it back to protect the pitchers, but the difference is that now everyone hits the ball," Sementi said. "Even the bad hitters are getting through on the ball. It's a way more offensive game and more balls are flying up the middle."

Tuscola's pitchers and corner infielders wear masks. Sementi said the value was reinforced to him during the time Kelsi Hoey was pitching.

"Hoey took one off the chest one time," Sementi said, "and she was as good defensively as we've had. It made sense to me. The girls can't get the gloves up quick enough."

Because of the offensive numbers, Bismarck-Henning coach Mike Stephens said he'd rather see attention diverted away from masks to a different area.

"I believe the real issue is better regulating the souped-up bats," Stephens said.

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St. Joseph-Ogden's Randy Wolken, the state's all-time winningest softball coach, would welcome a state edict requiring fielders to wear masks.

"I do not force my infielders to wear the face protection," Wolken said, "but a number of my assistants feel that I should.

"I've asked a number of my players who've gone on to play in college and they are not for it because of seeing the ball. I wish the state would make it mandatory just like the protection of the batter's mask they put in a few years ago."

Parkland recruit Shelby Franzen has worn a mask all four years at SJ-O when she's playing infield, but she removes it when in the outfield.

"I feel it helps the confidence of the infielder when they have the mask on," Wolken said. "Almost all players that wear them have been pushed by their parents or a coach. They don't want to do it on their own."

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Parkland coach Chuck Clutts goes along with his players' wishes.

"If they want to wear one, they can," Clutts said. "I don't want to be the one who says they can't and then they get hit by a batted ball."

None of the infielders on the Cobras' current national-bound team wears masks, but Clutts said one outfielder has one.

"She has a small bone fracture by her eye," said Clutts, who emphasized his belief is that each individual should make the call for themselves. "I don't think it's up to the coach, but rather a personal decision by the student-athlete."

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Paxton-Buckley-Loda coach Lindsey Alred, Watseka coach Barry Bauer, Heritage coach Lisa Boyer and Mahomet-Seymour coach Mark Jones don't discourage infielders from wearing masks, though they prefer that they do.

"I recommend that infielders wear them," Alred said, "but at this time it is not mandatory."

Bauer said there hasn't been a need to be insistent.

"Over the past three years, our players have listened to our advice and it hasn't been an issue," he said. "That is why we never made it a requirement. The girls have just accepted that we want the corner infielders and pitcher to wear the masks."

Jones said he has about a 50-50 split between those who wear the protection and those who do not. Third baseman Jessica Roberts and first baseman Ally Thornton wear masks, but the Bulldogs' primary pitchers, Alie Tarrant and Alyssa Spoerer are mask-free,

"I won't require that they wear it," Jones said. "I think it is up to the player to feel comfortable with or without the mask.

"With the mask, I think they feel less vulnerable to ground balls taking bad hops. Some are more inclined to stay down on ground balls more with the mask than without it."

***

For Unity coach Dave Ellars, the issue of face guards is personal. When his son, D.J., was in Little League baseball, he was hit in the face by a pitched ball.

"He (now) has a steel plate around his eye," Ellars said. "I was so glad they made the face guard on batting helmets required."

As for his softball fielders, Ellars suggests his players wear masks. All of his infielders, except the shortstop, wear a mask, but his pitcher wears only a protective mouthpiece.

Ellars is among the vast majority of area head coaches surveyed who recommend masks. For those who are opposed, Arthur-Lovington coach Matt Darling has one request.

"I would like to see some of the coaches that say they can't be worn stand 35 or 40 feet away and let someone hit line drives at them as hard as they can," Darling said. "I would rather error on the side of safety and encourage (wearing masks). I think it would be good if the IHSA did make it mandatory."

Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or by email at fkroner@news-gazette.com. Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.

Sections (3):Prep Sports, Sports, Softball
Categories (3):Prep Sports, Softball, Sports

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