Karle's Korner: Do high school softball players deserve better?

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Do you know a young lady who plays high school softball? Has she been lucky enough to play in the state tournament? If so, congrats, and if so, you may know where I'm going with this. In recent days (the championships were wrapped up this past weekend) there has been a groundswell of feedback on Montgomery's Lagoon Park as well as the Alabama High School Athletic Association, and the feedback has not been all positive. The gripe? Lagoon Park's short, white safety fences that are placed several feet inside the outfield fences of the Lagoon Park fields.  Some parents, players, and yes, coaches insist that these hard-working players deserve better (i.e., custom-sized fields with high school softball specs).

Here's the rub: The AHSAA holds its annual state tourney at Lagoon Park, where the six fields used were built for adult slow pitch softball. Why pull the outfield fences in by way of short barriers? Two reasons says AHSAA spokesman Ron Ingram. First, to keep the players safe. That's right, while the short plastic barriers get lots of criticism and jokes, Ingram insists they actually protect players from getting hurt, as crashing into a hard outfield wall would cause more injuries than the breakaway barriers. Ingram also reminds us that very few high school softball players could hit a home run over the existing outfield fences, as the fields are bigger than those specified for high school softball.

What do the players and coaches think of the short barriers placed around the outfield? Springville coach Brandon Easterwood, whose Tigers just won their fourth straight state championship, tells me that the drawn in fences actually benefit his team as with a larger outfield many of his team's home runs would have instead have been long fly ball outs.

My take on the Lagoon Park layout? It's a bad look, but the hands of those AHSAA big-wigs may be tied. First, the AHSAA is under contract for several more years with Lagoon Park, and second, I ask you: Where else could the state tournament be held? Many point to Oxford's Choccolocco Park, a nice facility with a number of fields that like Lagoon Park, were built with faraway fences. Liberty Park in Vestavia Hills? I'm not so sure the residents would welcome all of the traffic that the state tournament brings. The AHSAA's dilemma is simple: In the state of Alabama, their options are limited. Where else on our state could 104 softball teams cover six fields and crown seven state champs in less than a week? Like it or not, at this point the answer appears to be Lagoon Park.

Can Lagoon Park be updated for high school softball? Money talks, but it would be a big task. Quite frankly, the most pressing improvements needed at that facility are to the restrooms and the concession stand (parents and players know exactly what I'm talking about).

While I agree with a major college softball coach in our state who Tweeted that the gals deserve more, I also have to stand by the AHSAA in that their top priority has always been the safety of their athletes. Says Ingram, "The white safety fences actually prevent injuries, not cause them." And the future of the tournament at Lagoon Park? Ingram reminds me that the Softball Coaches Committee will meet soon (as it does every year after the tournament) to discuss player safety, park improvements such as new turf, and where the tournament will be held in future years.  I can see both sides on this one: Do high school softball players who work hard to get to the state tournament deserve better? Absolutely.  But what are their options? That, my friend, is the big question.

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