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25 years of softball growth

Kent Christian1 / 3
East Grand Forks Sacred Heart softball coach Mike Marek gets smiles from his players after a game during the 2016 season. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Terry Sadler3 / 3

Warroad was a perfect 11-0 this spring when the fastpitch softball team reached double figures in runs. There was a time when that situation wasn't a guaranteed win.

Twenty-five years ago, when fastpitch was in its infancy with most high schools in northwest Minnesota, Warroad lost three of the 10 games in which it scored 10 or more runs.

"In games back then, it was typical for teams to have five to seven errors in a game and 8-10 walks allowed,'' Warroad coach Terry Sadler said. "Giving up that many baserunners led to a lot of runs in games.''

Thief River Falls was the only area school with an established fastpitch softball program when, in the spring of 1993, Warroad, Lake of the Woods, Roseau, Marshall County Central, Crookston, Badger-Greenbush-Middle River and Kittson County Central started teams.

They played as independents for a year, then in 1994 joined the Minnesota State High School League as sanctioned programs. Several other area schools have added programs since.

A lot has changed as the sport has evolved and skill levels have improved.

"Back then, we were so inexperienced with the game,'' said Sadler, who has been Warroad's coach for its entire 25-year existence. "We didn't have a lot of knowledgeable coaches. Nobody had veteran players. There was a lot of teaching—how to pitch, how to hit.

"A lot of times, the scoreboard looked like a football scoreboard. Scores in the upper teens and 20s were common. And you get players on base and you just ran and ran and ran. Pitchers had to be able to throw in spots where catchers could make good throws. That was a challenge.''

Probably the most noticeable changes have been pitching and defense. Double-figure scoring games still aren't unusual. But they're not the norm.

Kent Christian, the B-G-MR coach since 1996, remembers a shootout won by the Gators 28-26. Mike Marek, who coached Sacred Heart in its inaugural season in 1997 through 2016, remembers scoring 42 runs in a game.

"You look at those early scores, it was ugly,'' Marek said. "Scores in the teens and 20s, nobody batted an eye. Now, if somebody scores 20 in a game, it's like, wow.''

Said Christian: "In those early years, you'd go 2-3 hours for games. Now you're looking at 1 1/2-hour games. Pitchers are throwing strikes. The fielding is much better. Our goal is to have two or fewer errors in a game. When I started, if we had only eight errors, it was like, nice game.''

Hurlers always could throw hard, Marek said. They're throwing harder now and more accurately. "And it used to be all fastballs. Now the good pitchers are throwing everything—fastball, change-up, curve, riser or drop ball.''

Changes have also come because of equipment. Bats have become livelier. That's led to more protection for fielders. Pitchers, infielders, sometimes even outfielders, wear protective masks, whereas in the early days of softball rarely did anybody but a catcher don a mask.

Playing conditions also have improved.

"We used to play on some cow pastures,'' Christian said. "There were no fences. If the ball was hit into the gap, the baserunners could go forever. There was one place where we had to do a quadruple relay to get the ball back to to the pitcher. Now we play on fields with nice fences.''

Shorter fences, along with livelier bats, also have brought the home run more into play, Christian said.

Fastpitch also has improved, coaches say, because athletes are spending more time at the game. There are summer camps, tournaments and leagues now available.

"All of it has grown so much,'' Sadler said. "Kids are playing at a younger age. They understand the game better. The pitching is miles ahead of where it was when we started. Defenses are better.

"The days of girls showing up with their dad's or older brother's hand-me-down old glove are gone. Now the girls have their own new gloves and they wear them out from usage.''

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