Local softball umpires look to start summer youth league

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

June 4, 2020

PRINCETON — An absolute lack of high school softball in spring of 2020 has inspired members of the Mercer Softball Umpires Association to initiate a program this summer that could be a first step in uplifting the overall competitiveness of the sport in Mercer County.

“We are hopeful of starting a girls’ league in the Greater Mercer County area. We are proposing an eight-week league,” said MSUA umpire Ernie Gilliard, who said the league has been a pet project for himself and board trainer Gary Meadows. “We decided to present a league here that would at least allow the kids to sharpen their skills and develop their game.”

The existence of the league will be determined based on COVID-19 guidelines and recommendations of the state, said Gilliard. It is also contingent on how many teams ultimately show interest in participating. The projected starting date is July 1.

“I think [in West Virginia] next week, June 8, in terms of school athletics, there can be non-sports specific outside work. This is a pilot program and we’re trying to find out first and foremost if we have the interest to run such a league,” said Gilliard, who is head girls basketball coach at Bluefield High School and has been a state certified high school softball umpire for 14 years.

It won’t be cheap. All teams must provide their own uniforms and equipment meeting NOCSAE standards and pay a $1,700 entry fee.

“It’s pretty pricey. But we wanted to do things the right way. We wanted to have insurance on the kids and things like that. We’ll have to pay for the lights and awards and things like that. And then you’ve got to pay your umpires for working. We want to give those kids a quality product,” said Gilliard. “We are also proposing a 24-game season. That’s almost a complete high school season.”

The age group of the teams for this year’s league will be limited to 17-U, although some flexibility will be allowed due to the unique circumstances of the pandemic that robbed many area high school players of their senior seasons. Some 18-year-olds may be allowed to play this year, he said. And while Age 14 is the usual lower cutoff age for the 17-U, some exceptions might be allowed this season in the case of 13-year olds with advanced enough skills.

The league would welcome teams from neighboring Virginia counties in addition to West Virginia teams.

Gilliard, Meadows and the rest of the association would like to see this blossom into a yearly program that would accommodate multiple age groups and enhance the competitiveness of local softball for years — if not decades — to come. The chief aim of the league is player development and instruction.

“We do a lot of travel softball umpiring. We’ve seen what’s out there. We’ve seen other areas where they’ve got groups of kids playing from 10-U an up. Those kids’ skills are tremendously more advanced than the kids in our area. There are some 10-year-old teams that are fabulous. We felt that if we could possibly get a league going and possibly get enough interest, then perhaps the skill levels of the kids in our area could improve as well,” Gilliard said.

“I think it has a great deal of potential. Eventually, perhaps we could get some of the local college coaches involved to help run clinics. Maybe some of their players could provide some of the counseling, instruction and demonstration for those kids.”

If it goes forward, this summer’s league games will tentatively be held at the Princeton Area Little League fields.

Area high school fields could possibly be incorporated into the outlook if the program catches fire. Ideally, Gilliard would like to see a dedicated multiple-field softball facility in Mercer County.

“Gary and I both feel that this is the right time to do this, to get it off the ground. And it can only get better,” Gilliard said. “Hopefully one day perhaps we can have a softball complex that has multiple fields at one site strictly for girls fast pitch softball. We don’t have anything like that in this area.”

Persons interested in this year’s league should contact Meadows at (205) 913-0246 or Gilliard at (304) 922-4617.

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