published Saturday, March 16th, 2013

No softball at Lookout Valley High School

Lookout Valley High School will not be fielding a softball team this year for the first time in coach Pat Conard's 31 years at the school.
Lookout Valley High School will not be fielding a softball team this year for the first time in coach Pat Conard's 31 years at the school.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

Not long ago the Buzz Classic was a weekend softball tournament Lookout Valley's Lady Yellow Jackets hosted every spring. But no longer are things abuzz with the program that played in three TSSAA Class A state finals in the 1990s.

Coach Pat Conard was expecting this to be her 31st season in charge of Lookout Valley softball. Instead it will be her first at the school without a team to coach.

The Lady Yellow Jackets competed in the state tournament as recently as 2004, but since then they've had some seasons when they were barely able to field teams. And that often required doing some pleading in the hallways for one or two to come aboard.

"It's heartbreaking," said Conard, who had four show up when she held her first team gathering late in 2012. "We've done everything possible to get nine. I never thought this would happen."

Many of the athletes at a small school like Lookout Valley play multiple sports. It didn't help that Annie Marr, who can play catcher or shortstop, suffered a herniated disk and has been sidelined since the late stages of the volleyball regular season.

Brianna Workman tore a knee ligament before Christmas during basketball season. Another would-be softball player got pregnant.

Current Lookout Valley Middle School softball coach David Dinger coached the high school baseball team for 23 years. He recalled 1992 being a season in which he was unsure whether he'd have a team but ended up with nine and recruited a 10th.

"We all gripe about it," Dinger said. "We get a little discouraged about the numbers. One thing is we've all been through it before. A lot of the coaches have been here a long time. It's a fear we've all had, those of us who have been around a while.

"This is real. I don't know what the solution is. We've really got some good kids that want to play. I hate it for them."

Freshman Katelyn Mitchell is among them. Her father, Doug, is a National Guardsman who a week and a half ago arrived home after a yearlong stint in Afghanistan.

Conard said Doug is the type of softball parent who helps do work around the field. He's as invested in the program as his daughter is.

"I was the one that had to tell him," Katelyn said. "That's been mine and his sport together. He wasn't happy."

Lookout Valley isn't large enough to have a high school track and field team. But it is allowed to be part of a co-op effort, in this case with Red Bank, so its athletes who want to compete have that chance.

Conard looked into a possible softball co-op situation with the Chattanooga Girls' Leadership Academy, formerly Tennessee Temple, or the Ivy Academy in Soddy-Daisy. Efforts were unsuccessful.

"Girls just don't go to school there for athletics," the coach said.

Mitchell and classmate Brianna Evers managed to pick up with a 16-under team made up of Georgia softball players. They can play for recreation in the spring since their high school season is in the fall. The Boynton Thunder's first tournament is this weekend.

"Miss Conard is a great coach," Mitchell said. "We just had some bad luck this year. This is better than not doing anything."

Conard is equally uncertain about next spring. Only two eighth-graders will be moving up from the middle school team.

Dinger has a total of 13 on that team. His daughter, Katie, a second baseman, is among the six players in the seventh-grade class, so it would seem help is eventually on the way. Conard would love to see interest in softball renewed around school, but she has no magic wand to wave.

"It's a hard game to pick up," Dinger said. "In football you might be able to grab a kid who's fast and find a spot where he can help you. But baseball and softball are such skill games. Every now and then you might come across a kid who can pick things up in a short amount of time, but it's a hard game to learn real quick."

Golf is another challenging game of skill, and a game Conard anticipates she'll be playing a lot more this spring. But rather than working on her swing, she'd rather be helping a few teenage girls with their swings in a batter's box.

"I really do enjoy it," Conard said. "This really does break my heart."

about Kelley Smiddie...

Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or ksmiddie@timesfreepress.com.

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