Area softball coaches, players debate need for protective masks for infielders, pitchers

  • York Suburban head softball coach Larry Dalton believes all pitchers and infielders should wear protective facemasks.
  • Spring Grove head coach Mark Hull said the decision should be made by governing bodies such as the NFHS or PIAA.
  • York College head softball coach Jen Petteys said she doesn't think differently of recruits who wear masks.
Dallastown pitcher Kelsie Merriman wears a mash while delivering to an Eastern York batter during softball action at Eastern Wednesday, March 27, 2019. Bill Kalina photo

In a dynamic, rapidly-changing society, people often look back at the way the world used to be with confusion. 

People used to smoke on planes. Drinking and driving wasn't always illegal. Cars weren't mandated to have seat belts until the late 1960s. The list is long, because the world, in many ways, is a better place today.

The sports world is no different.

Football players were allowed to spear other players with vicious helmet-to-helmet hits without penalty. Hockey goalies didn't always wear masks. Baseball batters weren't forced to wear helmets until the 1950s. 

York Suburban softball coach Larry Dalton believes in 25 years people will look back, perplexed, to today's era, when softball pitchers and infielders — corner infielders, specifically — didn't have to wear protective facemasks.

"I would be surprised if we get 25 years later if the infielders and pitchers aren’t all forced to wear masks," Dalton said. "Just do it now."

Dalton's policy: Protective masks have become more prevalent in softball, with certain travel and club leagues forcing pitchers, who finish their windups fewer than 40 feet from the batter, to wear masks.

Now, many high school infielders, specifically the corner infielders who are between 40-60 feet away from the batter depending on the defensive alignment or type of batter, are choosing to wear masks as well.

Eastern York infielder Analise Fenwick wears a mask while flipping a relay to first against Dallastown during softball action at Eastern Wednesday, March 27, 2019. Some coaches believe that all infielders should wear protective facemasks, especially the pitcher and the corner infielders. Bill Kalina photo

"It’s a fast-paced sport. For me it’s a no-brainer. It’s a safety issue,” Dalton said.

Dalton, who is in his second season at York Suburban, said he currently requires his pitchers to wear facemasks. Starting next season, however, he'll force all his infielders, including the shortstop and second baseman, to wear masks.

Dalton said it's a topic he's passionate about, though he didn't believe he had the "buy-in" in his first two seasons to make the change.

"It will be a culture shock next year,” he said.

Possible enforcement: Dalton thinks the NFHS, the governing body for high school athletics, or the PIAA, should mandate all infielders and pitchers wear masks.

The move for the PIAA wouldn't be unprecedented. In 2017, Kentucky became the first state to force any players to wear protective masks. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association now requires pitchers, first basemen and third basemen to wear masks.

Spring Grove head coach Mark Hull disagrees with Dalton on some aspects about masks. He encourages his pitchers and corner infielders to wear masks, but he believes the middle infielders have enough distance to react to line drives. Hull also doesn’t think he, as a coach, should force his players, who are competing for playing time and trying to play their best, to wear something that some players say is uncomfortable and impedes their vision.

"I don’t make my kids wear masks because of the fact that if they’re not used to wearing it, that can cause issues,” Hull said.

Hull, who has coached high school softball for 11 years, agrees with Dalton, though, that governing bodies, such as the PIAA or NFHS, should be tasked with this safety discussion, not the coaches and players. He added he would have no problem with a rule forcing pitchers and corner infielders to wear masks.

“I would be OK with the NFHS making that rule,” Hull said. “Some coaches might be unhappy, but in the long run, it has to be done.”

Players' thoughts: Hull's third baseman does wear a mask, but his first baseman, Hannah Shaffer, doesn't. 

Spring Grove first baseman Hannah Shaffer catches the ball for an out during a game in 2018. Shaffer prefers not to wear a mask because it's uncomfortable and impairs her vision.

Shaffer, a junior at Spring Grove, said she wore a mask when she was 12 years old because her coach required it.

However, she hasn't worn one since. She said the masks are “uncomfortable” and cause vision issues in the periphery and on pop-ups with the metal bar across the eyes.

“It’s how it would sit on your head and grip on your face, it wasn’t nice to have on,” Shaffer said. “Peripheral vision is very important as a corner infielder, and there are complete blind spots wearing a mask.”

While Shaffer doesn't prefer to wear a mask, she believes she'd learn how to wear one effectively if a rule was put into place.

“I think it’s something you can get used to,” Shaffer said.

York Suburban senior Madie Barshinger, however, willingly wears a mask at third base. Barshinger is the Trojans' center fielder, but when she comes in from center field to play third base, she puts on her facemask. 

"I’ve seen too many videos and read stories about a girl getting injured and even one when a girl died,” Barshinger said. “I knew if I played infield, I’d wear it."

With left-handed slap hitters and bunters in softball, third basemen are often tasked with the toughest plays in the game. When left-handed hitters attempt a bunt, the third baseman often charges to field the ball closer to home plate. Sometimes, though, the hitter will pull back quickly and slash at the ball, which can put the third baseman in a dangerous spot less than 30 feet from the batter.

“I definitely feel more protected with the mask,” Barshinger said. “If you get hit in the body, you’ll be OK. But if you get hit in the head, you may not be able to fully recover.”

College recruitment: In travel softball, there's a belief that some college coaches are less likely to recruit a player who wears a facemask. York College softball coach Jen Petteys said she's been approached by club or travel coaches about facemasks and college recruitment. 

"This has been a topic of discussion at our level from club or travel coaches wondering if it will effect their players’ recruitment,” Petteys said. “… I know there is concern from players about if they should take their mask off if they’re playing in a big showcase.”

Petteys, who has coached at York College since 2013, said her stance on facemasks is simple: "I support whatever makes the student-athlete comfortable to play their best game." She doesn't force her players to wear masks, but she presents it as an option to all pitchers and infielders.

“It would be a very old-school mentality if you think (a player’s) level of play is affected by wearing a mask,” she said. “I think that will decrease, because more college coaches are being vocal about their support for safety and facemasks. I’m hoping girls get the message that (wearing a mask) won’t hurt their recruitment."

At the college level and with high-level high school players, Petteys said the challenge with not wearing masks is the exit velocity of batted balls. She has players at York College who have peak exit velocities faster than 80 mph, which gives the pitcher and corner infielders little time, if any, to react to a scorching line drive.

"With the reaction time alone, athleticism is taken out of it, the risk of injury is really high,” she said. “If someone is comfortable wearing it, I would recommend it for the pitchers and corners. … I have never discouraged a player from wearing one."

Petteys believes travel leagues mandating masks for pitchers and infielders will push high school programs and the PIAA to "have that legislative discussion."

"As coaches at all levels, we have to be understanding that safety comes first. If that comes with a mask, I fully support that."

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