The state of Tennessee was a bit of a culture shock for Karen Weekly. Having grown up in the state of Washington and playing and coaching at Pacific Lutheran University, the move east was a bit of an adjustment.
Watching Kenleigh Cahalan play, it might seem as if she is a few years older than she actually is.
That’s intentional, because she tries to make it look that way.
“I just treat everything like I am one of the older ones and do my best,” she said. As an eighth-grader, Cahalan was pulled up to her high school’s varsity team at Hewitt-Trussville (Ala.). Early on that year, she established herself as the team’s primary third baseman and took a backseat to none in terms of production.
Ava Brown had worked hard to become one of the top overall 2023 recruits, ranking No. 6 overall among Class of 2023 prospects for Fastpitch Network, and was looking forward to the summer season to continue to improve her game.
“It has always been my dream to not only play college softball, but to also represent my country,” said Brown.
The exposure at summer tournaments and showcases are what all the young softball players work for in hopes of getting seen by the college coaches who attend the events.
With only two teams, it was an innocent start in 2010 into the travel softball world. Brian Madden and his dad, Mike, created the Oklahoma Athletics. It has continued to grow into an up-and-coming softball organization that will have to be reckoned with.
“We didn’t ever think it was going to get as big as it is now,” said Brian Madden. “We have went from two teams to about ten teams and now, we have 37.”
Although The University of Texas softball had seen its share of success through the years, the program was becoming somewhat stale. By 2018, their season had ended in regional play each of the last five years.
The Longhorns were ready to get back to their prominence and to the Women’s College World Series. The change started with the hire of Mike White as the Head Softball Coach on June 25, 2018. White was very familiar with the Women’s College World Series, having been there five of the last seven years.
A couple weeks ago, we introduced our Diversity in Softball panel featuring six very different personalities in our game.
As we continue the conversation this week, the questions get a little tougher.
As a minority, softball has not grown much in terms of inclusiveness or being welcoming. Players/Coaches before you have experienced the same things and players/coaches after you have also experienced the same things. Do you think this will ever change?
Panel Members: Rajaa Wilcox (Howard), Christian Conrad (Florida State), Dr. Dot Richardson of Liberty, Tamara Statman of the Israeli National Team, Jessie Scroggins of Black Girls Ball, and Libby Sugg (BYU)
RW: In my opinion, I do not think that softball has grown very much in terms of inclusiveness or being welcoming. NCAA’s student-athlete demographics show that in 2018 less than six percent of softball players were Black female athletes. I think what keeps softball from being more inclusive is how costly it can be to play the game at an elite level. Buying the proper equipment (helmet, glove bat, cleats, batting gloves, balls, etc.) alone can prove to be very expensive. Due to this, the sport is only accessible to those who are privileged enough to afford it and this creates the gap we see in the diversity of softball.
TS: Humans are very interesting because they try to form groups with people who are like them. Jews in particular are very much like this because anytime we meet another Jewish person there’s an instant connection that other people just don’t understand. I have certainly spent my time being in the out group, but it wasn’t because I was Jewish; it was because I was really weird and misunderstood as a kid. Actually, now that I’m thinking about a racial divide, in college for my first two years there certainly was one. It was clear. However, my last two years the gap was closed when it came to “in-groups” or mentioning people are a certain race. It was really refreshing and I really do have hope that inclusiveness is on the rise for teams.
JS: I’m not sure if softball will ever change. I think the first problem is people don’t understand the words inclusive and diverse. Because many people don’t understand them, they are misused. It is important to know that just because a sport is diverse does not mean it is inclusive. To help implement change, we need to understand what needs to be changed. What change looks like for me is having more minorities in head coaching positions, having more minorities at PWI’s, having those uncomfortable conversations with people to help them understand what needs to happen for change to occur.
CC: Since I can only answer based off my personal experience, I would have to say I disagree with the notion that there has not been growth in our sport, in regards to inclusiveness when it comes to the LGBTQA community. With that said, I do not want to discredit the experiences of others and the discrimination they may face. In regards to the LGBTQA community, I do believe that there have been strides to promote equality and acceptance compared to just a decade ago. I do believe that for this change to continue it is my duty to live my most authentic self. To show others that it is possible to be successful in our sport while living your true self.
LS: I pray with my whole heart that it does. One of the greatest parts about living in America in my opinion is the diversity we have. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and I think that’s amazing. The only problem though is there is still separation and tension between those different groups. It makes me sick that some people can’t see each other as complete equals. We should love each other for our individuality. I hope that with everything that has been going on that a change is and will come.
DR.: I have seen TREMENDOUS change with inclusion, with more opportunities from female athletes and coaches, especially since Title IX was implemented. There are more players of color participating in our sport. There are huge changes seen in this area as I have experienced in almost five decades. Sometimes we have a narrow focus looking back over few years or even a decade, however, if we step back and learn about history and from history we see productive changes in our sport and society.
Have you taken the steps to make the sport more inclusive or are you not affected? Are you reaching out to others to become more educated?
RW: I think the biggest thing that black players in softball can do right now to make our sport more inclusive is keep doing them and working to be the best athlete they can. Representation is a powerful thing, and you never know who you could be inspiring by just showing up ready to play every day. Being a player at Howard University, my whole team volunteers at the local Youth Academy to help spread baseball and softball to kids in underserved communities in D.C. It is important that we be visible and involved so that we are people that the next generation of athletes can look up to so that they may fill our places.
TS: I was always very curious about my other teammates and their religions or cultures or anything else in between. I probably asked too many questions that may have pushed the envelope, but I was always an open book on what people could ask. I just wanted to learn about why people do things. I always appreciated Alyssa Palomino and our talks on religion. It’s important to respect people, you may not have to like them, but it’s important to give everyone respect because everyone can bring something to the table.
JS: I would like to think I am taking the steps to help softball become more inclusive. It is one of the reasons why I want to become a softball coach. Like I said last week, representation matters and I need to give the little girls who look like me some hope. Some current/former players created a group named BGB (Black girls ball). The idea is to create a safe space for little black girls while educating nonblack people on what’s its like to be black in softball. We want to educate, create allies and help make our sport more diverse.
CC: I have become more willing to have the hard conversations needed that involve gender discrimination, race, and sexuality in the past few months. Once you realize that your truth is not the only truth you are able to listen to people to try to understand them instead of needing to respond. I’ve learned that I don’t have to have all of the answers. But being willing to learn and be accepting of others ideals and experiences helps me become more inclusive. If you want our community to progress you must be the change yourself.
LS: I try everywhere I go to tell people about being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It’s something I’m proud of and in a way, I like that I’m different from most. When I talk to some people about it I get a cold shoulder but I don’t let it bother me. I usually find that people just have one mindset about us and it’s that we aren’t Christians. I usually just giggle and say, “Well, Jesus Christ is literally in our name soooo…”
There’s a lot of misconceptions on what the Book of Mormon is and it is just another book with more proof and stories of Jesus Christ. That’s all it is. When you wear BYU on your chest people immediately get curious and want to know more.
DR.: As often as possible I speak about utilizing the gifts God has given and seizing the opportunities before us! No one is going to do it for you. You have to want to make the change in your life which will in turn impact the lives of others. People respect those who are servant-hearted with the mind-set of a champion within. If we live our lives to training to be a champion for Christ, our best is good enough and the change will happen.
Did you ever lose a starting spot or been cut because of your gender, religious affiliate or color of your skin?
RW: Luckily, I don’t believe that I ever lost a starting spot or been cut because of my religious affiliation or color of my skin.
TS: No and I really hope that is not something that other people have to deal with.
JS: I am not sure honestly.
CC: I personally have not lost a job or playing position because I am a member of the LGBTQA community. However, I do know of other gay men in our sport that were not allowed to date openly and remain a member of their college softball organization.
LS: No, I have not but I do believe that if I hadn’t made the decision not to play on Sundays that I would have. Growing up, travel softball was quite literally my job. In most jobs, if you have to perform and be at work for the weekend and you tell them one of those days you can’t be there, you probably wouldn’t get hired or be let go eventually. I also know that I probably wouldn’t have been the player I was if I hadn’t played on Sundays.
DR.: No, however as a young girl growing up in the 60’s, I was not allow to play organized sports because of being a girl. However, a day in 1971, that all changed and my path in sports began.
If there is something important happening during the season (holiday, family event) how do you approach that conversation? For coaches, have you had a player approach you about something that you don’t practice? How did you handle that conversation?
RW: If there is ever an important event that happens during the season, the best thing I found for me to do is just give ample time to notify coaches and most will be pretty understanding of the situation and work something out.
TS: To continue my Yom Kippur story, basically we just went to Coach’s office and said “Hey Coach, so the holiest day of the year is Yom Kippur. It’s this date, so can we miss practice because we will be fasting for 25 hours?”. Coach is a religious man, so he understood the importance of this holiday to the Jews, so we were in a very lucky situation. I also had to ask our Director of Operations for special food requests when we were traveling during Passover. It was also during Lent, so she had a lot going on with the food situation, but she did everything in her power to make sure I was accommodated.
JS: Don’t think that’s happened, yet.
CC: I wouldn’t say that being gay coincides with attending specific events instead of softball. But being able to miss practices for personal days or for your well being should not be frowned upon. Sometimes our personal life does effect how we play and perform on the field. So being able to have an open dialogue about how life is going outside of softball is vital.
DR.: For me, and I pray it is the same for you, God is number one in our lives, Family is number two so when there is something important with God and family those come first over the sport.
Did you ever quit, change schools or switch teams because of ignorance? (I think that is the word to use).
TS: No. I do have something slightly related though. My freshman year of college, I was out at night and when I came back to the dorm, my bed was flipped with a swastika made of paper on it and the person put goldfish in my pillow. It was another athlete and I handled it, but it was something horrific to come home to.
JS: I played for a team a long time ago and I wanted to move up in age. I went and tried out for the 18u within the organization. The coach said I didn’t make it although it was clear I should have. I ended up leaving that team because it did feel I didn’t make it because of ignorance.
CC: I no longer seek out playing men’s fastpitch as much as I did in the past. In my experience, I have played on teams that have made me feel uncomfortable not being able to live my true self openly. With that said, I have found other ways to still enjoy the game of softball while maintaining an environment of acceptance. By no means do I see myself as a victim in this scenario. I feel as if the women’s side has been nothing but accepting towards me.
LS: I have not thankfully. I always tried to educate my teams about my beliefs so that they never thought I was different. I mean I grew up in the heart of the bible belt. There was a lot of discrimination among my church and sideways looks simply because people thought they knew everything about us. I didn’t want that with my team because they were like sisters to me.
That’s as great a testament as any as to what head coach Mike Candrea has created in Tucson over the last 35 years. The bar has been set so high that seasons ending in the Super Regionals from 2014-18 had the program still yearning to take the next step and return to the Women’s College World Series despite seasons that would seem like a mere pipe dream for the majority of programs across the nation.
It is not a coincidence that Kasidi Pickering is one of the hottest recruits in the class of 2023 and her summer team, Hotshots Premier – Nelson, is one of the best teams comprised of 2022 and 2023 prospects. They both are very talented.
Pickering is ranked by the Fastpitch Network as the top utility player in her class and No. 4 overall among Class of 2023 prospects.
“All the intangibles. A true utility kid who can pitch, play all the infield positions at a high level, and one of the best 2023 hitters in the country,” said Nathan Nelson, who has coached her since 10U.