A box of fresh dirt in an unfinished basement in Rosemount has become a desired destination for numerous girls’ softball pitchers. On the wall are pictures, newspaper clippings, thank-you notes and posters.
“Pop … pop … pop” overwhelms the teaching voice of basement tenant Richard Foore as Brooke Pantila windmills neon softballs into a tarp 32 feet across the room.
“There’s a lot of pictures down there. I wonder if I’ll ever get a picture down there,” the Woodbury senior pitcher said.
If she does, it means Pantila will have become one of the Twin Cities’ best. With Foore’s track record, she stands a pretty good chance.
The 65-year-old Foore is among a handful of Twin Cities fast-pitch softball instructors who once dominated the men’s game. These gurus use their knowledge and experience from the men’s game and translate it to the girls’ game. The result, many believe, is some of Minnesota’s top pitchers.
Last Saturday morning, varsity starters from Prior Lake, Woodbury and Jordan lined up to use Foore’s indoor dirt.
Former students include Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year Briana Hassett and about a dozen other Division I scholarship athletes. Foore guessed that he’s trained hundreds of all-conference pitchers.
As word spreads about Foore and other instructors, girls seeking an edge enlist them for private lessons that can surpass $100 an hour. Foore charges $60 an hour.
“Rich played a lot of softball and he’s successful because he’s gone through it and been a pitcher and played against some really good guys,” said Eastview junior pitcher McKenzie Hanegraaf. “Many of the girls that have come through Rich have been very successful.”
Hanegraff and Pantila were quick to credit Foore for helping them improve their mechanics, accuracy and confidence in ways that four previous coaches could not.
Farmington girls’ softball coach Paul Harrington, a well-known former player himself, said about 30 fast-pitch veterans still have a hand in the Twin Cities girls’ and women’s softball communities.
They include Bruce Harten, Wayne Rudolph, Mike Benning, Daren Betzold, Dick Taylor and Skip Heagle. They’ve each turned their fast-pitch hobby into teaching area youth softball players. Many of the former players are on various online national fast-pitch registry forums that provide lists of instructors in a given area.
Harten, 70, is convinced his background in men’s fast-pitch is the reason his students have done well. Emphasizing no disrespect to the many successful women instructors, Harten claims “women that pitch like men seem to be faster, have more junk [pitches] and don’t wear out.”
“If you ask an old-timer, they can tell you who’s been coached by women and who’s been taught by men,” he said.
Prior Lake’s Caitlin Stone and many other high schoolers say they don’t recognize such a difference. But they do see their instruction making a difference in wins and losses, strikeouts and hits, and velocity.
“I’ve gained a curveball and 5 miles per hour” after several months under Foore’s instruction, Stone said.
Rosemount varsity softball coach Tiffany Rose doesn’t know if there is a difference or advantage to a men’s fast-pitch instructor. She does, however, know the success that can come from it. Rose was Foore’s first student 20 years ago. She then played at St. Cloud State.
Foore has since developed a waiting list of girls longing to get into his program. He currently works with 23 girls a week and carries 50 students.
“I think [men] bring a different element to the game,” Rose said. “Softball wouldn’t be what it is today without pitching coaches like Rich. Rich and men like him took us young pitchers and turned us into great pitchers. … You see more female coaches these days because of the time and effort that men’s fast-pitch players have put into girls’ fast-pitch.”
Michelle Harrison, who runs an instruction service called Strike Zone Sports, agrees. She is an example of the new and plentiful female presence teaching the Twin Cities’ softball players.
Harrison, who learned from an old-time fast-pitch instructor, is thankful for that influence but doesn’t link advantage to gender. It’s just all about finding the right coach, she said.
“Men pioneered [the sport] for us. … and we give them credit,” she said. “It’s important to remember that. It’s also pretty exciting for girls to take the sport and take a better aim and move forward with it in maybe a better way.”