Polson High School softball coach and 16, 18U softball coach Larry Smith has seen the transformation of girls’ fast-pitch softball since he began his career as a coach in 1988.
Smith, now in his 31st season as a softball coach, will once again lead his 16, 18U team in the Polson High School SPLASH Tournament June 8-9 at the Polson High School softball complex.
Smith has seen softball go from slow pitch to fast pitch, and throughout his 31 years as a softball coach has witnessed the popularity of the sport expand to the point Polson and other cities are hosting a state-wide, 36-team SPLASH Tournament.
The tournament will feature several teams from Missoula, Billings, Great Falls, Helena, as well as teams from the Mission Valley, including Ronan and Mission.
“Prior to fast-pitch being started in high school in 1986, there was very little and there was no fast pitch,” Smith said. “There were probably only one or two people, like me, that had a group of girls together to get fast-pitch going.”
Smith said the popularity of the sport of softball really began to expand in the mid-90s.
“It was probably in the mid-90s when they started picking fast pitch instead of slow pitch,” Smith recalled. “When it first started, it was very difficult for the parents and mothers to allow their little girls to play fast pitch and thought it might be too dangerous for them.”
The popularity explosion of softball in the mid-90s was the key to Polson developing a softball dynasty and becoming a state championship title contender year after year for the last 20 years.
“The competition became really popular right away once the girls started and really caught on, and got to liking it very well,” Smith said. “Softball is a very popular girls sport in our community. We really started to develop a winning attitude and procedures of our softball program to make (softball) popular for the girls.”
Initially, when teams first began adjusting from fast to slow pitch, it was a difficult transition, according to Smith.
“Probably the biggest adjustment from slow pitch to fast pitch was the speed of the ball pitched to the batters,” Smith recalled. “Everyone had to be quicker (on both defense and offense) and it was a slow start for us. Pitching was the real key and you started to see really dominant pitchers.”
The first dominant pitcher Smith recalls Polson having was Jamie Richard, who transferred from Polson after excelling in basketball and was a converted softball player.
“(Jamie) decided to come out for softball and we made a pitcher out of her,” Smith recalled. “She struggled her first year but by her junior and senior year became a very dominant pitcher. That is when our high school program became one of the teams to beat in the whole state.”
With the popularity of the sport of softball rising, Smith said he is seeing increased participation in girls softball, specifically because of the increase in collegiate softball programs such as the University of Montana softball team.
The popularity of the NCAA Division I through III programs, the NAIA programs, and the NJCAA Division I through three programs has increased participation in the summer softball programs and the spring high school sanctioned programs.
“I did see a pretty good increase in interest in the game once the Lady Griz program started,” Smith said. “Everyone wanted to be a Lady Griz and it is the same thing that happened when the Bob Cats’ girls basketball program got popular. Every college in the state got a basketball program and most of them came from smaller communities. Many Montana athletes wanted to stay closer to home and not go out of state and that is very understandable. I thought since the Lady Griz developed a softball team, other schools would follow and it’ll come (in the future) I hope.”
The evolution of SPLASH
In the past, some of the top-notch competition has come from bigger Montana cities in the SPLASH Tournament with a larger talent pool of kids to choose from that gave them a definitive edge.
“We will be facing tough competition from the bigger communities and in the past, the tournaments were pretty much controlled by the bigger communities such as Great Falls, Billings, and Missoula,” Smith said. “Now, you get to see good teams from all over and we will have several teams that will be tough. There will be a lot of summer teams that will be made of all-star teams with their communities.”
Smith said he felt some of the smaller communities are now as competitive as some of the bigger communities, which has created more parity in competition at the Polson SPLASH Tournament.
“The way it just flowed, I am very satisfied with the play with the local teams like Polson,” Smith said. “We do find their home team is able to get better exposure. I just want more players to play because it is just a great game and (modern-day players) just keep getting better at it.”
The Polson summer softball team is comprised solely of kids from the Polson and the Mission Valley. Smith prides himself in not recruiting and putting together a team predominantly of homegrown kids.
“I am very positive that is the reason (our program) stays strong is because the kids stay in Polson and play together during the summer,” Smith said. “By the time the kids play in spring in high school, they have developed a strong camaraderie. I’ve said that for years.”
Smith said he is “looking forward” to the SPLASH Tournament.
“I am just looking forward to it,” Smith said. “I think it’s self-therapy and our team therapy. It gets us victories and gets rid of those losses that we just had here.”
The Lady Pirates finished fourth at the Class A Montana High School Association Class A state tournament.
“I thought we did really well,” Smith said. “Even when we lost to Belgrade, we had the opportunity to win that game and be in the game but we gave it away. That game didn’t set so well and the players would like to shed that feeling.”
SPLASH Tournament welcomes team from Washington
This year, the SPLASH Tournament has an entry from the state of Washington and according to Kelly Druyvestein, they are the farthest team away.
“They are coming to town earlier and turning it into a family vacation,” Druyvestein said. “We hope to continue to draw more of these teams from Montana teams. We have teams from Great Falls, Libby, Ronan, Kalispell and Columbia Falls coming to the tournament.”