Anything worth doing is worth doing right.
During the two years I’ve covered sports in this county, I’ve noticed that when certain sports are approached the right way, athletes and athletic teams in Clayton County are just as competitive and just as good as their counterparts around metro Atlanta, and even the state, i.e. football (see Lovejoy) and basketball (see Jonesboro boys, Forest Park girls).
And the sports that aren’t approached the right way, well, they aren’t.
Perhaps no better example of this exists than what you find in Clayton County softball.
Last week, Forest Park captured its first county title, maybe in school history. When the Panthers defeated defending county champs Jonesboro 12-6, the scene that ensued was maybe comparable to the celebration Henry County school Union Grove experienced after winning a state championship in softball last year.
Here’s what I see wrong with that. Forest Park celebrated over a county title as if it were their state title. And in many ways it was.
County schools are ill-prepared to face the non-county softball programs in the regions they compete in, for two reasons: Lack of middle school softball programs and lack of strong youth and recreation programs.
County Athletic Director Kevin May also attributed it to a lack of interest. That’s to say the county doesn’t act like it cares much about softball.
Now May has been around longer than I have, so I don’t question his expertise at all. But what I saw out on that field last week were girls competing with their hearts and coaches pushing them to do so.
And when the title had been won, coaches and players were piling on each other. Tears flowing. One coach sat on the dirt portion of the field, tears streaming down her face, while being flanked with two other players with equally wet faces.
They didn’t want to leave the place of their triumph.
Doesn’t look like a lack of interest to me. These girls want to win. They want to win at softball. Not just Forest Park, but all eight of the other schools as well.
And they can. But they have to be given the chance. They have to be afforded as equal an opportunity to compete at a high level in the sport of their choice as football and basketball athletes are given. Which means they need someone who cares enough about the sport in this area to come up with solutions.
In the same sentence where May admitted that the county needs to close the gap on the Henry and Fayette county schools with regards to softball, volleyball and baseball, he also acknowledged that there are signs of that happening, right now, in volleyball.
The 2012 Jonesboro volleyball team finished 32-8, pushing Henry County’s Woodland High squad to the limit for the Region 4-AAAA crown. This year the Cardinals are sitting at 4-1 with a new cast of starters, losing only to Mount Zion.
Speaking of Mount Zion, it took a set, 2-1, against Woodland just two weeks ago. And Riverdale has shown promise both this year and last year.
The difference? Middle school. Clayton County volleyball players have a middle school program to develop in before they get to high school. Something that May said is of extreme importance in order to compete.
“You can’t expect these athletes to just come to the high school level and be ready to play,” May said.
Very true. So let’s create some alternative solutions for softball.
Not enough money in the budget for middle schools to have their own facilities? Fine. Each city has a park. Utilize it’s space. Or make middle school softball a spring sport so that teams can utilize the high school facilities.
Don’t like that one? What about the Gerald Matthews complex, the site of the county tournament? Find a way to rotate middle school teams through the system of softball fields there for a season.
Some of the Henry and Fayette schools don’t always look that much better than the top Clayton teams.
But they definitely look far more comfortable playing the game, simply because they’ve been playing together far longer than anyone else from Clayton County.
If being the best among the county’s nine schools is all that these players care about, then snatch them out of their regions and just let them play amongst each other all season.
But judging by what I’ve seen, I don’t think that’s the case. These girls, and their coaches and parents want more.
And call me crazy, but I just believe there’s got to be a way to give it to them.
Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily newspaper. He can be reached at email@example.com. If you’re on Twitter, follow him @GabrielStovall1.