A program of their own: With windmills, teamsmanship, girls softball is a hit in Greenwich Village Little League

[media-credit name=" Photos by Kathy Ryan " align="aligncenter" width="600"][/media-credit]

Like the other players in the G.V.L.L. girls softball program, the Cowgirls learn teamwork and enjoy camaraderie.

BY TIM LALUMIA  |  Success stories tend to be perceived as things that seem to have happened “overnight,” to have just suddenly materialized. And, yes, there is that aha! moment when others first notice, but that is usually the end result of a protracted effort. Thus, the superficial views of such positive outcomes leave the success and those who made it happen less appreciated than they should be, especially in the case of a completely volunteer organization.

Article of evidence No. 1: the thriving girl’s softball division of Greenwich Village Little League. Though G.V.L.L. is no stranger to operating at very high levels despite a difficult urban environment of very limited playing fields, hard-fought fundraising and big expectations, the girl’s softball teams are now winning more games and having a grand ball doing it.

In less than two short years, the G.V.L.L. girl’s softball division, after struggling for more than a decade with basically only one mixed-age team, has exploded from that one team of 15 total players to five teams and 85 players. Incoming G.V.L.L. President John Economou called the growth of the girls’ program phenomenal.

Pitchers master the art of the windmill style to zip the ball to the plate.

“Next year will bring in around 100 registrants and the addition of at least one more team in the minors,” he said. “It’s amazing. Just look at their T-ball, which only began this year with ages 6 to 7.”

Before the season began, 17 had signed up when it became obvious that younger sisters, stuck on the sideline watching the practices and games, wanted in too. Little League of America allows kids as young as age 4 to play T-ball, so the age was dropped to 4 and they gained another crop of girls.

It isn’t only the increase in the number of players, but also the quality of play, due to a quickly growing interest and more opportunities being offered for training. Past G.V.L.L. President George Usher pointed out, “In 2010 our lone softball team had a very hard season. But in 2011 that team won all of its games. Historically, G.V.L.L. is a recreational league, but you just cannot argue with absolute success.”

Across the country, girls softball has been a third wheel to boys baseball. Usually it’s just a core group of dedicated players and parents, plus longtime coach/coordinators sticking together to carry the torch. At G.V.L.L., though, their long perseverance finally paid off. Specifically, along came Steve White (current softball coordinator, longtime baseball manager/coach, manager of the Juniors division Cowgirls team, vice president of tournament teams and G.V.L.L. board member) and Paul Theisen (assistant softball coordinator, manager of the Minors division Villagers team, G.V.L.L. vice president of sponsorship and longtime board member.) Though they are both quick to credit the other volunteers, especially those in the many hard years before them, it’s impossible to ignore that they arrived with their daughters in 2010 and since then,
well — picture a towering home-run shot out of the park.

A G.V.L.L. Cowgirl batter makes solid contact, ripping a line shot.

Something very special is happening. With nurturing coaching and leadership styles, White and Theisen showed up with tons of heart and buckets of baseball experience. They brought the excitement of boys Little League, which includes years of attending coaching clinics held each year by G.V.L.L. and Downtown Little League. The softball division has been around awhile, but White and Theisen seemed to have tapped into the unmet demand that was there but never fully reached.

Theisen partly attributes the rapid success with an especially fertile atmosphere and timing.

“There were a lot of girls who did not want to play baseball with the boys, because they felt it was too aggressive and often intimidating,” he explained. “At least half of the current players would never have played baseball, and so, likely nothing at all.”

The girls play and participate differently. They needed a league of their own.

“Though it began as a social thing and not as athletic, it very quickly has grown into a full-blown jock swagger,” Theisen said. “Most importantly, even though not all the girls are advanced athletically, the camaraderie that has developed is incredible. The girls support each other in ways that boys do not.”

White added, “The girls themselves came up with the idea of pizza dinner followed by ice cream after each practice. Of course we coaches and other grownups have to sit at our own table. It really is their team.”

Without the years of leadership by previous coordinators, managers and coaches, there would have been nothing to build on. Judith Stiles, mother of actress Julia Stiles, began the girls softball program more than a decade ago. Robert Silverstein tirelessly strengthened the league in the past decade (with great support from then G.V.L.L. President Tom Ellett) and he turned it over to the long-term care of Anne Turyn (who was backed up by Chris and Cheryl McGinnis). The darkest moment along the way, came when the G.V.L.L. board considered closing or merging with the Peter Stuyvesant Little League, but those undaunted early volunteers refused to give in and bravely soldiered on.

Many devoted parents over the years also fought hard, notably, Ted Ziter, Scott Thode and Malcolm Sage, who helped to keep girls softball going even when it was on a down cycle. As good as G.V.L.L. is, there was very little focus on girls, and the board meetings often finished with softball as the last item on the agenda, basically an afterthought.

But the new beginning seems to have been sparked when, just prior to 2010 (before White’s daughter joined the league), the then coordinator Ziter recruited well-known Dominican Baseball Hall of Fame and Olympic softball champion Elizabeth Sanchez to instruct the players on the art of windmill pitching. Her humor and positive approach made her an immediate role model for the girls. Sanchez worked with some of the baseball coaches at P3, headed by Tobi Bergman (a very early, active and longtime supporter of local youth sports), who then continued by offering skills clinics. A year or so later, P3 added Renae Beauchman to head up its growing softball division.

Soon after Sanchez’s arrival, G.V.L.L. decided to begin playing by proper softball rules. As Theisen remembers it, “We had been more lax on some rules; no windmill pitching, no stealing, and no leading or sliding. We found out quickly that the girls love to steal, and stealing brings the whole defense alive. It created more action and they responded in a big way.”

Rich Caccappolo, a past G.V.L.L. president and longtime executive board member, said White and Theisen’s contributions have been invaluable.

“Paul and Steve — with [outgoing G.V.L.L. President] Dan Miller’s unwavering and open-minded support — have fundamentally changed our softball, not just expanding it and revitalizing it, but envisioning something significant for girls in our community,” he said. “These two are the kind of guys who do not just contribute their own time in great quantities, but they are able to mobilize other volunteers. They have created a real powerful program, and a culture that will keep it growing and improving long after they leave.”

Caccappolo quoted Cheryl McGinnis, who would often say in board meetings, “There are not that many athletic programs for girls in the city, so anything we can do to help younger girls get involved and maybe even more importantly, stay involved as they get older into middle and high school, is a really significant contribution for our neighborhood.”

Now girls softball is by far and away the fastest growing part of G.V.L.L. Comprised of both public and private school students, there are currently five softball teams, each with very hard-working volunteer coaches. The Juniors division has the Cowgirls, ages 12 to 14, managed by White and coached by Scott Thode. In the Majors division there are the Pioneers, ages 11 to 12, managed by Andy Hort. There are two teams in the Minors division, ages 8 to 10, the Villagers, led by Theisen, and the Ramblers, helmed by Steve Rutkovsky. Finally, there is the Trailblazers, with 25 players, ages 4 to 7, in the instructional T-ball division. It’s a far cry from just one 15-player team only a couple of years ago. In addition to the spring season, softball continues with teams and clinics though the summer and into the fall.

“A few years back, my own daughter played in West Side Little League softball because G.V.L.L. did not offer an all-girls program for her age group,” Miller recalled. “Steve White and Paul Theisen have done a phenomenal job in not only jump-starting the program, but far exceeding all our expectations by creating a fun, team-oriented learning experience for girls ages 4 to 14. It’s a great victory for the whole community.”

T-ballers now get one hour a week of instruction from Sanchez, which is firing up the little ones (and parents) about the game. Some parents who initially considered this just another diversion from school are now changing their tune.

“All of our players are involved in lots of other activities, including ballet, theater, soccer, volleyball, basketball and many others,” White noted. “But the coolest thing is that they are all serious about their grades as well.”

It’s important to note that studies are now showing that kids — yes, girls too — who are involved in organized sports are finding greater success as students in high school and college, and later in life in businesses of all types. Parents are now looking at their daughters’ softball experience as something to take pretty seriously in planning for college. It may be just as impressive on the application as robot club or violin.

Here, in the middle of the biggest, toughest city in the world, devoted volunteers like White and Theisen are striking gold the old-fashioned way — through hard work, unwavering belief, vision and patience, all toward a very worthwhile goal…with a pinch of great timing thrown in.

Windmill style, of course.

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