In the early 2000s, two parents noticed there weren’t many options for their young daughters to play competitive sports. So, Larry Barnes and Tom Robinson put their heads together to create a program that would cultivate that team-driven atmosphere they had been looking for.
In 2003, they created The Gwinnett Middle School Fast Pitch Softball League, a feeder program that provides an opportunity for girls across the county to start playing on high school fields and gain recognition for their skill in the sport.
Explaining the concept of a ‘feeder program’, the league’s new co-director Tanya McDaniel said, “The team is for middle school students to prepare and align with the high schools they will be attending and get them ready for high school sports. This is an excellent program for more experienced girls that are looking for a higher level of competition.”
In 2018, they passed the baton on to Tim Gaines and McDaniel. In the past year, the two have seen the program blossom. For the 2018 season, they had close to 400 girls playing on 33 teams that feed into high schools across Gwinnett.
Paul Stewart will coach the eighth-grade team for Dacula. Coach Stewart has been coaching in the county for 30 years and told the Gwinnett Citizen he has witnessed a wave of competitive culture rise with the expansion of the Gwinnett Middle School feeder program.
“Feeder programs were not that big back then, but they’ve developed over the past decade, Coach Stewart said. “My granddaughter is on the second generation on this league, and she loves it!”
With their 2019 season just around the corner, coaches and players alike are anticipating what will be a whirlwind of activity which will include daily drills, practice and group work for five straight weeks.
“Our season starts August 3rd with a preseason jamboree to get the young ladies warmed up for the season. This also allows for the teams to be placed in the right division” McDaniel explained of the league’s placement system. The Red Level is the highest division in the league, while the White and Blue divisions provide an opportunity for the girls to enhance their competitive edge and better prepare for the more competitive ranks.
Coach Stewart believes that playing on actual high school fields goes a long way towards preparing the girls for the rigorous pace of high school athletics.
“We’re a pretty advanced middle school program, and it’s great for my girls to play on the high school field because high school coaches have already started to watch them, and they’ve been looked at by recruiters,” Coach Stewart said.
Coach Whitney Wolfe is a teacher at Buford Elementary and trains one of the teams that feed into Buford High School. She was introduced to the league when her younger sister was in middle school and appreciates the ethic and drive it teaches many of the girls.
“One of the best things about the league is how it introduces them to the fast pace of playing in high school. It’s letting them know, ‘This is what you’re getting into,’” Coach Wolfe said.
Having played softball throughout high school and while she attended Piedmont College, Coach Wolfe believes playing competitive sports presents girls with much more than the athletic skill alone.
“All sports teach life lessons. Lessons of teamwork and team chemistry are some of the big ones. Our girls learn that they have to get along with each other before they can play together. It’s building that chemistry — that trust in themselves, in their teammates and their coaches,” Coach Wolfe said.
For McDaniel, the upcoming season presents many hours of coordination with parents and coaches, but she’s excited to see where it will take the girls. Her son is a lifelong baseball player, so McDaniel values the importance of good sportsmanship.
“It’s wonderful to watch them compete and improve over the season. The girls have great camaraderie, and it’s rare to see them upset. They love to be out there!” McDaniel said.
And she understands that the while girls thrive in a competitive environment, their adult supervisors should always be mindful of the work they put into the sport, even when they don’t win.
“These girls are young athletes, and they’re very strong, but we adults also need to remember that they’re still kids, and they want to impress us so badly, and they hate to disappoint their coaches. I remind all the coaches of that because praise is so important.”
The Fast league Season wraps up in September each year with a league-wide tournament held at the Lilburn Lion’s Club. At the end-of-season tournament, teams will compete for Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Bronze Divisions.
“That gives us an opportunity to recognize even more girls for their hard work,” McDaniel said of the competition.
For the 2018 end-of-season tournament, the First Place Platinum prize went to the North Gwinnett team. The Buford Manders won first place for the Gold Division, Grayson Dennis took first place for Silver and Norcross Hanson took first place for the Bronze Division.
Throughout the season, the young athletes had the opportunity to compete at the following high school fields: Dacula, Mountain View, North Gwinnett, Lanier, Archer, Brookwood, Grayson, and Parkview.
Coach Stewart spoke of the girls’ rapid improvement over last year’s season, saying “I saw most of the girl’s skill level double!”
Parents interested in registering their middle school-aged daughters for the 2019 softball season should contact McDaniel by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org From there, she will put you in contact with one specific team coaches to get you started.