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Making a pitch for safety: More protection on high school mound

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On May 3, Columbus North sophomore pitcher Collin Lollar was hoping the Greensburg batter wouldn’t be able to react to his 86-miles-per-hour fastball.

It was Lollar who wasn’t able to react.

He heard the contact of the bat and saw the ball coming back at him, but Lollar couldn’t get his glove up in time. Fortunately, the ball connected with the brim of his cap before deflecting into Lollar’s skull.

While Lollar ended up on the ground, the ball deflected into the outfield.

In the next few minutes, fans and his fellow players waited in stunned silence as coaches and medical personnel tended to him.

In this instance, it was a happy ending. Lollar escaped with a nasty lump on his head, and actually continued to pitch. But what if the ball had hit him two inches lower?

Would Lollar consider wearing a protective mask?

“Not a chance,” Lollar said. “I don’t want anything on the front of my face.”

Tom Hamm, the head softball coach at East Jessamine High School of Nicholasville, Kentucky, had a similar discussion with his daughter and pitcher, Haylee Hamm, who held the same opinion as Lollar about wearing protective equipment.

“I really had never given much thought to her wearing a mask,” said Tom Hamm, who has coached softball more than 10 years. “Then we went to Fort Walton Beach (Florida) earlier this season for a game. She had a hard line drive hit back to her that barely missed her.

“We argued all week about whether she should wear a mask. She didn’t want to wear it, and I didn’t do my job as a parent.”

On April 11, East Jessamine was playing a home game against Rockcastle County with Haylee Hamm pitching. Her father had looked away for an instant when Haylee released the ball.

“I heard a crack followed by what sounded like another hard crack of the bat,” Tom Hamm said. “It was the ball hitting Haylee in the face. I heard her yell, ‘I can’t see.’ By the time I got to her, which took about two seconds, her left eye was swollen shut. She had a major laceration, and you could see behind her eye. Her orbital floor had been shattered.

“I literally was in fear for her life.”

After five days, Haylee Hamm had reconstructive surgery and had a titanium rod inserted behind her eye socket to replace the shattered bone. She also suffered a broken nose, and that had to be set as well.

A month later, she is ready to pitch again, this time wearing a mask.

“Our surgeon at the UK Hospital (in Lexington, Kentucky) told us that she was very lucky that she didn’t lose her sight, or suffer brain damage, or that she wasn’t dead,” Tom Hamm said.

Tom Hamm said the terrible accident has forced him to understand the reality that softball players, especially the pitcher and the corners (first basemen and third basemen) need to wear masks.

“Haylee is a two-time Kentucky All-Star,” Tom Hamm said. “She already has signed to play at Bluffton University. She is a capable pitcher.

“But by the time the ball leaves a softball pitcher’s hand, she has four tenths of a second to react if the ball comes back at her. That’s two-tenths of a second from the bat. Haylee saw the stitches on the ball that was coming at her, but by the time she raised her glove, it had hit her.

“My argument is that the majority of kids starting on the mound in high school softball are not gold glove players. The bottom line is that they are not going to catch a ball coming back at them.”

In Indiana, the decision for softball players to wear a mask or not is generally left up to the players and their parents. In baseball, a pitcher can wear a protective helmet if so desired, but not a mask (unless they want to wear a certified catcher’s mask).

Indiana High School Athletic Association spokesman Jason Wille said his organization follows guidelines set by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Elliot Hopkins, director of educational services at the National Federation, said his organization always has kept a close watch on safety issues.

“We’ve been doing this 100 years,” he said. “The Major Leagues basically adopted our collision rule (at home plate). We’re always concerned about safety, and usually when we see a trend starting, we act.”

Hopkins noted that currently pitchers can wear batting helmets because that equipment is tested and approved. Without a demand for any kind of mask, no equipment has been tested.

“We can’t put in a rule until a product has been tested and used,” he said.

In 2012, the National Federation passed a rule to cut down on the explosiveness of the bats being used.

“There is not as much trampoline effect now,” Hopkins said. “The game was getting so out of control, it was almost scary.”

Theresia Wynns, the director of sports and officials education for the National Federation, deals with softball.

“We have an organization that tracks injuries, and then we get a report,” Wynns said. “Generally, we are looking at safety issues based on injuries projected. We will look at (safety in softball) again this year to determine if we need to do anything.”

Wynns knows that in softball, where the pitcher and infielders are closer to home plate than in baseball, players can be at risk.

“When the ball is coming off a bat, the first baseman, third baseman and pitcher have to think quickly,” Wynns said. “In their cases, it might be to their advantage to wear protective gear. We allow states to make that choice, or the parents, or the schools. We’ve allowed the players to use the safety equipment of their choice. If a school or state wants to mandate it, they can do that.”

The National Federation Rules Committee meets June 8 through 10 in Indianapolis.

Tom Hamm is trying to get the Kentucky High School Athletic Association to mandate the use of masks by softball pitchers, first basemen and third basemen and he has been asked to submit a synopsis of his point of view.

“I’ve heard all the arguments, that broken bones are part of sports,” he said. “Are we going to wait until a kid gets killed? Twenty years down the road, they are not going to care if they were a great high school softball player. They are going to care if they can’t see out of their left eye.”

Hamm wants the a rule about wearing protective face gear to be mandatory because of coaches and parents like him, who just didn’t understand the danger or who can be persuaded by a strong-willed teenager.

“This isn’t about my daughter,” he said. “I’m trying to protect another kid.”

Some players already have embraced the safety equipment.

“My mom always has made me wear the mask,” said Columbus North senior pitcher Grayson Harney. “But now I think it provides me with my own zone. It’s something different.”

Harney said she has taken a shot off her shin in travel ball that sent bruising all the way down to her foot. She admits that she “flinches” when the ball is hit directly back at her.

“She has worn the mask pretty much since the very beginning, since she was 10,” said Ranae Harney, Grayson’s mom. “I remember seeing something on FOX News, this girl had just gotten hit after a pitch. You should have seen her face.

“So it’s safety first. I know everyone feels differently, but in the years since Grayson started wearing the mask, it is amazing how many more kids are wearing them now. I’ve just seen too many things, and I want to make sure she is safe, especially with her braces. I used to make her wear a mask in the outfield, but she threw a hissy over that one.”

Columbus East softball pitcher Hayley Smalley has changed her mind about the mask over the years.

“When I was 12, I had to wear it,” she said. “I thought it was stupid and bulky. It blocked my view.

“But I’ve been hit a couple of times. I was drilled in the leg and I still have a scar. I appreciate it now.”

North softball coach Jerry Burton said the IHSAA should take a look at the issue.

“You have to think about the way the kids are getting stronger and the way the ball is coming off the bat,” he said. “And if you leave it up to the players, a lot of them don’t like it. I’m surprised we don’t see (injuries) more often. By the time the pitcher lets go of the ball, she is 36 feet from home plate.”

East coach Sonny Stahl said he would be surprised if a rule to wear a mask becomes mandatory, but he would be in favor of it.

“I saw (East junior) Erin Tharp hit a ball against Greensburg that knocked the pitcher off her feet,” Stahl said. “Those pitchers are 43 feet away, throwing 60 miles per hour. In baseball, that’s like 90 miles per hour. Think how fast that ball is coming back at you.”

East pitcher Peyton Gray knows the dangers, but he wants things to remain the same.

“I’ve been hit once or twice,” he said. “I’ve taken it in the thigh. But I really don’t want to wear (a mask). It would just be something else jiggling around.”

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