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Clayton County softball teams get chance to compete, shine

I’m not sure who can tell you the last time a softball team from Clayton County challenged for anything more than a county championship.

I couldn’t tell you the last time a Clayton school posed a big threat to its Henry County counterparts like Ola or Union Grove, or schools like Fayette County’s Whitewater or Northgate High of Newnan County.

What I do know, however, is that while the quality of the game in the county may look different than in the aforementioned locales, the passion and the pride that players, fans and coaches in the area take toward it should not.

In fact, I surmise that an uptick in the passion and pride will also create an upgrade of the product on the field.

Fans get the chance this Saturday to show some passion and pride for county softball at Saturday’s annual county tournament. It will take place at the Lovejoy Softball Complex with games beginning at 8:30 a.m.

I’ve been to two of these tournaments in my seven years of living in this area. Once I went as a reporter. That was last year. But the first time I went was as a fan.

My wife was an assistant coach at the time for Forest Park High, and the Panthers came just a couple of innings short of defeating Mundy’s Mill for the county title that year — a huge feat considering where the Panthers had been the year before.

For many Clayton County schools, it will be their first extensive action of the season, as many early season games were rained out.

However, as I’m writing this, the sun is currently beaming through the windows of the newsroom. Hopefully this sunny weather will last through the weekend to give these teams an opportunity to play each other for county supremacy.

Much has been made of the gap between Clayton and Henry counties as it relates to the quality of softball played. When I’ve heard, or taken part in this discussion, many factors have been bandied about.

Lack of middle school and feeder programs in Clayton. A problem that Henry County doesn’t have. Also, financial issues. For instance, some schools in the more affluent counties have their own grounds crews that help drain the field or keep things in playable condition even when weather doesn’t cooperate.

Clayton doesn’t have such a benefit.

Also, Henry County schools made the conversion to fast-pitch softball several years before Clayton did. It takes my wife Courtney, who was a former Forest Park softball standout and Georgia Southern softball player to explain the differences between slow pitch and fast pitch softball.

The only similarities between the two, she says, is the fact that a ball, a bat and a glove are involved. The transition from one to the other is not just a matter of learning how to hit a slower thrown ball. It’s a dramatic difference.

Because of middle school programs and stronger recreation programs in Henry and Fayette counties, kids are arriving at the high school level much more prepared than those in Clayton.

And although budgetary concerns keep Clayton County from fostering a middle school softball program, county athletic director Kevin May says improvement in the area definitely must start at the pre-high school level.

“There’s definitely room for improvement,” May said. “First of all, we can’t expect kids to come into softball at the high school level and just be ready to play,” May said. “We have to be able to strengthen our youth and recreation programs.”

May, who coached baseball at Morrow High back in the 1990s, said he would definitely like to see the county take steps toward getting better at softball, baseball and volleyball.

“I think we’re definitely closer in volleyball,” May said. Evidence would support that as Jonesboro gave Henry County school, Woodland, all it could handle in a race for the Region 4-AAAA title in 2012. Riverdale impressed as well last year.

May freely acknowledges the challenges in Clayton’s ability to improve its softball product. But everyone will forget those talking points on Saturday when the county’s nine schools face off in the round robin style tournament for local bragging rights.

And as I’ve often been hard on the residents of Clayton County in their support of its high school sports teams, I must say that this tournament is a breath of fresh air. The parents of the teams come out very well for this one.

And that’s how it should be.

Our paper’s editor Jim Zachary said it best: “High school sports is about wins and losses, but it can’t be just about wins and losses.”

Here’s to all of the parents, coaches and fans of Clayton County softball teams that will lay their all out on the field this weekend and through the rest of the season win, lose or draw. I see you. And so do the kids.

Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily newspaper. He can be reached at gstovall@news-daily.com or follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1.