In the summer of 2016, Judy Smith could hear echoes of cheering, laughter and excitement while sitting on her porch in Garland.
“After dark, I can look out and see the sky lit over the ballfields,” Smith said.
Softball is back in Garland.
“It really makes my heart smile,” Smith said. “That’s how I feel.”
Smith, a Garland town commissioner, is one of many community members who worked to revitalize the program, which began in May. Several meetings were held between town officials and the newly-formed Garland Volunteer Softball League to bring everything to fruition. The program fizzled out several years ago before its triumphant return.
“I’ve always been a believer that we need to involve our young people in positive activities and give them plenty to get their energy out,” Smith said. “I believe that it’s a moral obligation that we have to our children to give them some outlets.”
The league began with four adult teams and nine little league teams for the spring and summer. Seven adult teams participated in the fall league.
“Last year was a great year and we got a lot of community support,” Smith said. “It brought the community closer together and it gave old and young alike something to do. There’s not a lot of recreational things to do in Garland.”
Under the leadership of Chuck Brock, The Avengers, a Little League team, enjoyed many successes during the return. He’s been coaching for 10 years and enjoys seeing the progress of young players such as his granddaughter Kadence Allman. Brock said his team was the perfect example. They came in last place during the regular season, but were victorious in the tournament as champions.
“Seeing that progress was pretty cool,” he said.
About three-fourths of the team was never involved in organized sports before joining The Avengers.
“It teaches you teamwork and it’s not about who got all the marbles or anything like that,” Brock said. “A lot of them had no concept of what a team game was. They learned how to be team players — that was the biggest takeaway from it.”
Along with learning softball skills, Brock said it gives children something to do in a small town. Parents and families also enjoy the fun too.
“It’s kind of like a social event too,” he said. “Parents get to come out of the house and come to the fields during the week. It’s good for the community.”
Chad Hazelwood coaches the DC Tigers with his wife, Jennifer Hazelwood. The DC honors his father-in-law, Dewey Carter, who coached the team for many years before the league disbanded. He passed away from cancer at the age of 70. The team won the regular season in the bracket for 6- to 9-year-olds and placed second in the tournament.
“A lot of the kids never played ball before,” Hazelwood said. “It was a learning experience for them and they all enjoyed it.”
Like other supporters, they believe the softball league is a plus for Garland.
“It give the kids something to do besides playing Nintendo and Xbox games,” he said. “They come out and get active and it brings the community together. It’s a positive all the way around in my eyes.”
The alternative to staying inside the home is something Brock enjoys too.
“I’m 57 and in my day, you didn’t have internet and your mom and dad threw a ball in the yard and said ‘get out the house,’” Brock said with a chuckle. “Be home when the street lights come on.”
Hazelwood hopes it continues in the future, for the betterment of the small town.
“We’re just a small little community and there’s not a lot going on here,” he said. “We had crowds out here watching those young’uns. It was a success.”
After moving to Garland from western North Carolina, Hazelwood witnessed the early triumph of the program, before it was turned over to the county’s Parks and Recreation Department. He said the system made it hard for youths to travel around different parts of the county to play.
“That was a negative for a lot of people who have to work and don’t have the time to drive 30 minutes,” he remarked. “With it being in this one community, you’re not but five minutes at the most away from a ballpark. To me, having the town control it like it is now is much better for our community.”
Their daughters Kimberly and Hailey enjoyed playing softball last season. Hailey was coached by her parents and Kimberly played for the Mudcats.
“I enjoy being out in the field,” said Hailey, a 9-year-old shortstop. “I love it.”
Kimberly, 11, not only had fun, but she enjoyed the sportsmanship aspect of the game.
“It teaches you to be nice to others,” Kimberly said about competing.
The committee, coaches and players are grateful for the sponsors and volunteers who donated their time and money. In addition to the summer league, adults enjoyed playing in the fall as well. In 2017, the league is looking forward to signing new players for the summer season. Various age brackets are set beginning at 6 years old through 16. Tee-ball was also available for ages 4 to 5.
Committee members on the Garland Volunteer Softball League include Secretary and Treasurer Wanda Johnson, Gary Long, Leo Skinner, Todd Marshall and Sharon Hopper.
“I was surprised to see so many people come out to the games at night,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t just the parents and grandparents of the kids playing ball. It was a lot of people in the community that would come out and bring their chairs and sit there, not just for one game, but for other games too.”
Johnson liked to see elderly people come out too.
“I think it means a lot to them because they didn’t have to drive all the way to Clinton or to Elizabethtown. They could just come a couple of miles to a field in Garland to watch something exciting and be among other people enjoying the same thing. That’s what we wanted to bring back to Garland — excitement and enthusiasm.”
During the year, they’ll work toward another season and overcoming challenges such as finding umpires. Two are needed for the summer league to monitor a pair of fields. During the season, they could only hire one, so inexperienced volunteers had to fill in the gaps.
“We would love for someone to volunteer to be the umpire because we don’t have a lot of funds,” Johnson said. “If we can have someone that qualified as an official umpire, that would be wonderful.”
Besides the umpire issues, the league needs volunteers to help with other duties such as dragging the field. Lee Carberry prepared the fields during the season for free.
“It was a blessing that we could get him to drag the fields,” Johnson said. “He has really taken care of that for us.”
Johnson added that if the league has to pay for grass maintenance, umpires and field preparation, it could take a large chunk out of their funding from town hall. Coaches are responsible for finding sponsors to help pay for shirts and trophies. Money also went toward repairing the concession stand.
“The concession stand did very well,” she said. “I would hear people say ‘we come out here to eat and we didn’t have to cook supper tonight.’”
To help with financial needs, the league also offered sponsorship opportunities by placing signs of businesses and organizations on fences. In all, the goal is to make sure the children and their families don’t have to pay to participate or have equipment.
“Not all kids have the opportunity to play sports,” Johnson said. “I know from experience from having children, it can be expensive to join a group and play ball.”
That’s not the case for the Garland league.
“It’s free for the kids — the kids don’t have to pay for anything,” she said. “The good thing about playing ball in the summer is that it gives kids something for six weeks in the summer to look forward to.”
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.