By Devin Golden
They’re just a group of former baseball players who decided, “Slow-pitch softball? Why not give it a try?”
For the Murray County Indians squad, that’s what this weekend’s Southern Softball Association of America Youth World Series is about.
But for many other teams, this event is as big a tradition as the sport itself.
The Indians are the only local team — or Georgia team, for that matter — competing in the tournament, which started Thursday and concludes today at Heritage Point Park in Dalton. The Indians and 57 other boys and girls teams competed in pool play Thursday and Friday morning, and were seeded based on their performance for double-elimination bracket play that started Friday afternoon and continues today.
Event organizer Mike Mason said there are 45 boys teams and 13 girls teams, the first time in the event’s near 25-year existence it has included female competition. Teams were split into age divisions, as young as 8-and-under and as old as 20-and-under for boys, and as young as 8-and-under and as old as 19-and-under for girls.
The Indians, who were in the 20-and-under division, signed up at the last minute. Playing first base for the team was 2011 Murray County High School graduate Taylor Patterson, The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Player of the Year for baseball and boys basketball during the 2010-2011 school year.
“It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing with a group of friends wanting to do something during the summer,” he said, noting the team mostly includes Murray County graduates, with a few Northwest Whitfield graduates sprinkled in.
One of the differences is the speed of the game. For local athletes, slow-pitch softball is a foreign concept at the high school level.
Still, Patterson doesn’t think it’s a big change.
“See ball; hit ball,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how hard it’s coming, you have to hit the ball. ... I think the older we get the more we will play it. We’re all used to competing and once we get out of the competitive sport, we’ll play it. I think the older guys around here play it a lot. My dad played a lot of it. I think it’s bigger the older you get.
“In the mid-20s, I think people play it a lot. In our age group? Not so much.”
In Louisiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the sport is largely popular. That’s where the bulk of the teams competing in the tournament are from, Mason said.
“Ever since my dad and all of his friends played it, you see every kid playing it,” said Ryan Miller, coach of Sportrax of Ohio, a Canton-based team. “Once they reach 13 years old, they start forming teams. Usually it goes until we’re 20 or 21.”
A big reason for the sport’s popularity in Ohio and Pennsylvania is the large Amish population. Miller and his teammates are Amish, and many of them left school after eighth grade, having never been exposed to high school baseball.
The same is true for many players on the Lancaster softball squad, from Lancaster County, Pa.
“I went to high school, personally, but a lot of the people (from around there) don’t,” said Anthony Stoltzfus, the team’s captain.
Miller admitted it’s a little strange coming to an area where an open national tournament only drew one nearby team.
“Obviously, slow-pitch softball is a lot bigger back in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania than it is down here,” Miller added. “Tennessee has some good teams. Shez City from (Catahoula) Louisiana brings a lot of good programs here each year.”
Charlie Stanley, another 2011 Murray County graduate, thinks the odd part is seeing teams from across the country coming to Dalton for a sport he and his teammates have little exposure to.
“I never expected teams from Pennsylvania and Ohio to come all the way down here just to play in a three-day tournament, but it’s exciting,” Stanley said.