Rocky Mountain High’s Hayden McKenney strolled out to the pitcher’s circle in the bottom of the first inning. Facing an undefeated Eagle team known for its slugging ways, the senior psyched herself up for the key 5A Southern Idaho Conference softball game April 7.
But her nerves ran so high, she forgot something — the protective mask she wears over her face for every game.
It didn’t take long for McKenney to realize her mistake. An Eagle batter blasted a shot past McKenney in the first inning, ringing the alarm bell inside her head.
“It wasn’t really close. It was down at my shin,” she said. “But it still reminded me how hard these guys can hit.”
If it was up to Kerry Martin, the athletic director for Idaho Falls and Skyline high schools, McKenney wouldn’t be able to forget.
The 5A and 4A schools around Idaho Falls, competing in the High Country Conference, implemented a rule in 2013 requiring all pitchers and third basemen to wear protective facemasks. Now, Martin is pushing for a statewide rule.
Martin made his pitch Wednesday at the Idaho High School Activities Association board of directors meeting in Boise. The board moved it to a vote at its June 17 meeting. All rule changes have to pass two votes before the board, delaying any possible change until the 2016 season.
“To me, it’s really kind of a no-brainer,” said Martin, the softball coach at Skyline from 1990-2005 and president of the High Country Conference. “If you actually analyze the pitching motion in fast-pitch softball, when they get done throwing, their mitt is down by their knees. Just the throwing motion makes their defensive posture on a line drive not in a good situation because their mitt is down.”
AROUND THE STATE
Idaho stands on a similar precipice as many other states.
The High Country Conference moved on its own to require protective masks — plastic shields with clear bars that rest a couple inches in front of a player’s face. But it’s not alone in Idaho.
Minico requires its pitchers and third basemen to wear a mask after a gruesome injury in 2013. A Canyon Ridge batter fired a comebacker right into the Minico pitcher’s mouth, giving her a concussion, knocking out two teeth and breaking another, and requiring reconstructive surgery to repair her lip.
The school declined to release her name, and the family declined to speak with the Idaho Statesman.
Minico Athletic Director Kelly Arritt didn’t travel for that game. But after watching the video, he made sure no pitcher or third baseman at Minico would ever take a direct shot to the face again.
“I guess you could call it a wake-up call,” Arritt said. “But after seeing that video, and after what happened, I decided if someone is going to get hit again, they’re going to be protected. We wouldn’t take a chance.”
A FIRST IN THE NATION
Like in Idaho, leagues and schools around the country have created a patchwork of their own rules requiring who needs to wear a mask. But if the IHSAA were to pass a rule, Idaho would become the first to do so at the state level after Iowa and Kentucky both flirted with mandating protective masks in the past two years before backing off.
The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union rejected a proposal in January to have all infielders wear a mask after learning the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) — the group responsible for setting standards for batting helmets, football helmets and other equipment used by high schoolers — has not certified protective masks.
Kentucky’s athletic association asked the National Federation of State High School Associations to mandate masks in the spring of 2014. When the national organization rejected the proposal, Kentucky — where a pitcher spent more than a day in a coma in 2011 after a batted ball struck her in the face — did not pass a rule of its own. It instead issued a recommendation that all pitchers, third basemen and first basemen in the state wear a mask.
The inaction even convinced Kentucky’s state legislature to discuss a potential law requiring the masks. But the legislature eventually opted to leave any rule up to the state’s high school athletic association.
Ty Jones, the executive director of the Boise-based IHSAA, said the request for masks took him a bit by surprise. But he said the activities association would study the issue.
“We definitely don’t tell them they can’t wear (the masks),” Jones said. “It’s kind of like concussion helmets in basketball. If they want to wear those, that’s fine with us.”
UNIQUE TO SOFTBALL
Several Treasure Valley softball coaches questioned why a rule is needed for softball, and not for baseball.
A rule started in 2006 requires softball batters to wear a facemask. Baseball has no such rule. And a rule change in 2011 moved the rubber in softball back from 40 feet to 43 feet.
“They’re just like guys,” Boise softball coach Brian Barber said. “They get used to playing without them. I’ve never seen a guy wear a facemask, unless he has a broken nose. It’s not part of the culture, not even in Little League.”
Supporters point to the sport-specific aspects of softball for why players should wear a mask.
Even at 43 feet, softball pitchers still stand nearly 20 feet closer to the plate than baseball pitchers. The bases in softball are 60 feet apart instead of 90. And the faster pace of softball, as well as its reliance on bunting and slap hitting, often draws corner infielders 40 feet or closer to the plate.
Add in the ever-increasing technology and explosiveness of softball bats — the NFHS reined in baseball bat technology in 2012 — and softball players are under more fire than ever before.
According to a yearly study of high school sports injuries by the University of Colorado, concussions were the most common softball injury in four of the past five years, accounting 17 percent of all injuries over that time period. And in 2013-14, 25.8 percent of those concussions came from fielding a batted ball, more than any other category.
In baseball, 10.7 percent of the injuries in the study were diagnosed as concussions over the same five-year period.
“For them to say it’s not a big deal. I think they’re just being naive and avoiding the issue,” Martin said. “We sit in these conferences and say we need to be proactive and work toward safety. To me, that’s what we’re here for — to provide an environment that’s safe for the kids to play in.
“To say just because it hasn’t happened, well, get online. It has happened. It could be just a matter of time before it’s one of your kids.”
COMFORT VS. SAFETY
Kuna’s Joe Kleffner, the Treasure Valley’s longest tenured softball coach at 16 years, estimates about 20 percent of pitchers in the area wear masks.
He and many other coaches around the Valley leave it up to players and their parents to decide if they need a mask. And the top complaint he hears about the masks is they’re uncomfortable.
Kleffner said he’s yet to see a player hit in the face in his 16 years at Kuna.
“It happens once in a while because it’s going to happen,” Kleffner said. “If they feel more comfortable wearing the mask, go ahead and wear it. If it feels uncomfortable and they can't see out of it, or the bars are in the way, don’t wear it. But understand the risk.
“It’s like a football helmet and what it says on the back — ‘No helmet can protect from all injuries.’”
But Kleffner and other coaches around the Valley said more players are coming into their programs with masks. Many start wearing them at the youth levels, either because their club coach or their parents require them. And by the time they get to high school, playing without a mask would be uncomfortable.
McKenney’s parents required her to wear a mask growing up. She admits she rebelled while pitching for Rocky Mountain’s junior varsity team and didn’t wear one. But once she jumped to the varsity level, she returned to the mask because it made her feel safer and more confident.
“When you first start wearing it, there is a little visual restriction,” she said. “But then you kind of get used to it, and it is comfortable to wear.
“Since I’ve been wearing it for so long, I’m just used to it. It’s part of my uniform.”