There is no place Rogers senior Katelyn Kemmetmueller would rather be than on a softball field. The senior pitcher/shortstop decided long ago that softball was her sport of choice and plays at every opportunity: high school, summer club, fall softball and winter domeball. Her dedication has earned her a scholarship to the University of Minnesota.
“It’s what I love to do,” she said. “Even when I’m not practicing with a team, I’ll go out with my two sisters and have them hit ground balls to me.”
Kemmetmueller is far from alone in that regard. Though dwarfed by states such as California and Texas when it comes to churning out players, Minnesota has become a fertile recruiting territory for college coaches. That’s largely because of the growth of the sport outside of high school play.
So much softball has resulted in some overlap of seasons. With weather always lurking as the backdrop, many of the softball clubs are forced to begin play before the high school season is over, starting practices in early May. Recognizing that necessity, the Minnesota State High School League granted the sport an exception to its Bylaw 208, which forbids student-athletes from participating on a school team and a non-school team in the same sport at the same time. Baseball and skiing get the same exception.
Now high school softball coaches, believing that players are in danger of being stretched too thin, are considering terminating that exception.
Coaches fight back
The overlap of seasons has many high school softball coaches concerned, so much that when the Minnesota Fastpitch Coaches Association surveyed coaches last winter asking if the bylaw exception should be terminated, nearly 70 percent responded yes.
“The issue is kids being pressured to play on their school team and also play on their club team,” Eden Prairie coach Dan Rubischko said. “That’s too much.”
Said Elk River coach Stacey Sheetz: “A lot of us feel like there’s already too much asked of these kids. What about a day off? Time for homework or time to rest?”
Neil Johnson has coached softball at Shakopee for more than 40 years. He said he never anticipated either the pace at which for-profit club softball has grown or the effect it’s had on softball communities.
“I’ve heard horror stories of coaches getting ready for a game on Monday, only to have a player say she can’t play because she had a two-hour club practice the day before,” he said. “Most of the club coaches have the best intentions, but some do go overboard. That’s the dilemma for kids: Do I go with Coach A or Coach B?”
It was a hot-button issue at the coaches association winter meeting. Stillwater coach Bob Beedle, a longtime high school and community softball coach and advocate, suggested giving up the Bylaw 208 exception as a way to regain control of the welfare of high school players. The idea caught on quickly.
“We’re seeing more and more conflicts,” said Murray County Central coach James Wajer, who is also the current president of the fastpitch association. Wajer said removing the exception would benefit players far more than it would hurt the club programs.
“It wouldn’t kill [club softball],” he said. “For [players on] most high school teams that don’t make it to the state tournament, it would only be about two weeks before they could join their clubs. There are educational benefits that come from high school sports, like the responsibility to maintain a good grade-point average and be a good citizen. It’s not always about wins and losses.”
Forest Lake softball coach Sean Hall also runs one of Minnesota’s premier softball clubs, Midwest Speed. Hall said he agrees that players shouldn’t be the object of a tug-of-war but said removing the exception may be taking things a little too far.
“I don’t know of any club coaches that force their players to practice if the high school coach doesn’t want it,” Hall said. “Just have high school coaches say no. I wouldn’t want a player to have a hard-core [club] practice during the season, but I don’t think we need to make it a rule.”
Rubischko, who also coaches the Minnesota A’s elite-level summer team, has experience in both camps. “Most summer teams know not to interfere with high school ball, but certain coaches have asked kids to play during the high school season,” he said. “I don’t know that it happens often, but it’s enough that it’s a concern.”
Kemmetmueller said she has never had a conflict between club and high school.
“For me, it’s never been an issue,” she said. “I’ve been lucky in that, until this year, my high school coach [Jerry Bruns] has also been my club coach. But even if it wasn’t, if you decide to play high school, you have to be dedicated to it and make that commitment.”
Lower levels affected
Coaches on both sides of the issue agree that the players who would be most affected by the change are not varsity players but those at the ninth grade, JV and B-squad levels.
“Most varsity players are doing what they would be doing with their club teams anyway,” Hall said.
If the exception were relinquished, it would include high school players at all levels, meaning younger players might be forced to play at levels below what they would experience with club teams.
“Maybe the rule needs to be for the 16- and 18-year-olds,” Rubischko said. “The girls who are 14, maybe it should be a little different because they’re usually playing on lower-level teams whose season ends a little bit earlier.”
Not a done deal
Despite the support of the majority of high school coaches, giving up the bylaw exception is still a long way off. The feeling is that the high school league would prefer to have baseball and softball in lockstep before any change could be made. Baseball coaches are loath to do anything that could hurt Minnesota’s strong VFW and American Legion programs.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Wajer said. “We’re still just getting feedback. I’m not sure if [the MSHSL] would go for it without baseball too. In the end, we have to remember it’s not about the coaches or the parents, it’s about putting kids in difficult situations and how we can fix that.”