Softball face masks gain popularity

Cary-Grove junior Lauren Stanley pitches Monday against Crystal Lake South in Cary. Stanley didn’t always wear a mask when pitching, but she has worn one every game since teammate Lindsay Efflandt suffered broken bones in her face after being struck by a line drive April 22 against Prairie Ridge.
Cary-Grove junior Lauren Stanley pitches Monday against Crystal Lake South in Cary. Stanley didn’t always wear a mask when pitching, but she has worn one every game since teammate Lindsay Efflandt suffered broken bones in her face after being struck by a line drive April 22 against Prairie Ridge.

Jerry Lagerhausen just wants the best for his Alden-Hebron softball team.

Even if it means using the same $300 high-performance composite fast-pitch bats that sent his daughter Hayli to the hospital with broken bones in her face four years ago.

They buy them for the “bubble transition zones,” “inner socket technologies” and “optimized fused layers” that nobody understands. They come with a label warning of “a risk of serious injury or death.”

“It just dropped [Hayli],” Lagerhausen said of the batted ball that struck his daughter in the jaw during a game at South Beloit. “It literally destroyed her face. You panic because it was my daughter, and she was only 16.”

But Lagerhausen wants the best for his team. That’s why you’ll find the same model of composite bat that injured his daughter four years ago lining the dugout walls during the Giants’ games and practices.

“I would be the first one to say that I’m just as guilty as anybody else,” Lagerhausen said. “I’m no better, but in order for my girls to be able to compete, I have to do it.”

What changed for Lagerhausen: He now requires all of his infielders to wear protective face masks.

More McHenry County softball players were stirred to join in on the face mask movement after Cary-Grove’s Yale-bound pitcher, Lindsay Efflandt, took a batted ball to the face April 22.

Efflandt’s high school career was put on hold so she could mend a broken orbital bone, jaw bone and sinus wall.

As high-performance bat technologies continue to push the pace of softball, attitudes toward infield safety equipment are relaxing despite a lack of action on the part of rule makers.

Efflandt immediately took up the cause.

“I’m not going back out there without [a mask],” the senior said. “I’m definitely an advocate for it now.”

Not your grandmother’s bats

Alyssa Lach was there when the changes started in youth softball.

“When I first started playing, it was a mix of composite and aluminum bats, and I’ve seen bats banned because the ball comes off so fast,” Lach said. “They’ve definitely changed.”

The third baseman, a junior at Jacobs who has committed to play softball for Division-I Butler, now uses the $300 Demarini CF5 composite bat, which has helped her hit six home runs this season.

“They have a bigger sweet spot, so if you hit it, you’re going to hit it hard,” Lach said.

Composite bats first broke into softball and baseball in the early 2000s and immediately caused a stir because of the explosive power created by the trampoline effect of their layered fibers. Within the last few years, they have become more available and prevalent for younger players.

The Amateur Softball Association of America set out to regulate the use of these bats and set a standard for a 98-mph batted-ball speed in 2004 that still is in use today.

Those standards are relied on by the IHSA and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which sets the rules for most IHSA sports and for most high school sports in all 50 states.

“The NFHS has a unique relationship with softball in that the NFHS and the ASA and the NCAA all work together to come up with certified equipment,” said Matt Troha, the IHSA administrator for softball. “From a bats standard, as long as a bat meets ASA certification, and has that stamp on it, then it’s legal.”

This means that the IHSA, like other state associations, has no control over bat standards used in their games. The ASA has certified as legal 495 composite bat models from 26 manufacturers. And while the ASA tests all the bats it certifies for batted-ball speed, continuing advancements in lightweight technologies, stiffer materials and balance continue to assist hitters.

“In the first few years, very seldom did I see home runs,” 17th-year Prairie Ridge coach Mike Buck said. “But now they just pop off the bat. The ball just simply did not fly like it does now.”

The wearing-in process is not unique to composite bats, but has been shown to be pronounced in increasing batted-ball speeds for composites. The 2004 ASA standard accounts for a natural wear-in process, but it doesn’t account for what the ASA has termed illegal doctoring, in which bats can become even more dangerously explosive through various illegal forms of tampering.

A study completed by a master’s student at Washington State University found that such bats could reach batted-ball speeds of 105 mph.

Troha admitted difficulties in detecting these illegal bats.

“[Doctored bats] can be difficult to detect, but we encourage umpires to look for dents, cracks, cuts, worn or missing certification stickers, marks or anything that could indicate a bat may have been cut open or adjusted,” he said.

Starting with the 2011 season, the NFHS switched to a BBCOR standard for baseball bats, which called for more uniform testing and less explosiveness in that sport, but softball has yet to follow suit.

“I don’t think that it would change the game that much [to implement lower speeds],” Lagerhausen said. “But I have some big hitters on my team, and they love it.”

Troha doesn’t see changes coming any time soon.

“As technology has progressed, they’ve gotten better at being able to really test the bats, and figure out how lively it is,” he said. “But I think they still feel comfortable with where we’re at right now with the bats, so I don’t foresee anything as significant as what they did in baseball on the near horizon.”

Instead, for the 2009 season, the IHSA assisted batters by immediately adopting the NFHS’ new 43-foot circle distance that gave batters 3 extra feet to see pitches.

“It will increase offense and get the defense more involved in the game, but more importantly it has the potential to improve safety for the pitchers,” IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman said in a news release. “When you consider the safety factor, there really wasn’t a logical reason to wait a year to move the pitching distance.”

Given the 43-foot distance from home plate, 98-mph batted-ball speeds and batters that now train year-round in the quest for a Division-I scholarship, pitchers now have less time than ever to react to a batted ball.

Alden-Hebron encountered a situation recently in which one of its hitters injured the opposing pitcher without even swinging.

“All she did was touch the ball, and it drilled the pitcher right in the wrist,” Lagerhausen said. “The pitcher went to the emergency room with a sprained wrist. She had no time to move or react.”

Masks not just for catchers anymore

When Crystal Lake South pitcher Heather Eck stepped into the circle April 25 for a start against Johnsburg, three days after Efflandt went down with her gruesome injury, she was wearing a face mask for the first time in her softball career.

It helped her escape injury.

“I took a line drive to the shoulder and it [bounced] off my shoulder and into my face mask,” Eck said. “It was kind of scary, but I’m really glad that I was wearing the mask.”

The senior’s parents bought her a mask after encouragement from her coach, Scott Busam, on the day of Efflandt’s injury.

“At first, I was against wearing face masks,” Eck said. “I thought they were a distraction and not for me.”

Word was spreading.

Crystal Lake South pitcher Hailee Massie’s dad was umpiring Efflandt’s fateful game.

“My mom and I were out to dinner, and my dad called her, and told her what had happened,” Massie said. “We were all shaken up, and I went out right away to get a mask.”

Without hesitation, the sophomore thrower has worn it every game since.

“I tried a couple of different masks, and with some it was kind of hard to see,” Massie said. “But the metal one I got is comfortable.”

Efflandt’s replacement in that game and in the circle since, sophomore Lauren Stanley, had only sometimes worn a mask before her teammate went down. That ended then.

“Sometimes in travel [softball] I [wore a mask], but when that happened to Lindsay, I’m always going to wear it now,” Stanley said. “Better safe than sorry.”

Efflandt herself had worried that wearing a face mask would limit recruitment opportunities.

“Some college coaches won’t recruit pitchers who wear masks because they think they’re scared of the ball, and I think that’s ridiculous,” Efflandt said. “My Yale coaches definitely don’t [care]. I’ll wear a mask in college. I don’t care if I get grief for it.”

But college coach and recruiter Michelle Venturella, a former member of the U.S. national softball team and a gold medalist at the 2000 summer Olympics, says masks don’t figure into her recruiting process.

“Honestly, if I was watching a kid throw 65 miles per hour and she wore a mask, I wouldn’t care,” Venturella, who heads the softball program at the University of Illinois-Chicago said. “The thing is, can you get the job done? It’s a piece of equipment, and I wouldn’t hold it against a kid.”

Venturella thinks times and attitudes are warming to the idea of increased mask use because of the composite bats.

“I wish our sport wasn’t at the point where we needed to [change],” Venturella said. “I would hope that there’s going to be a way to control how hot the bats are. ... I understand and I think we’ll see more [infield masks].”

Gina Billy has seen the change in mask attitudes firsthand.

She played varsity softball for Prairie Ridge from in 2001, and now she’s the hardlines manager at the Sports Authority on Cog Circle in Crystal Lake.

“Oh, definitely,” Billy said of mask sales over the past few months. “I even wrote to our district manager because we couldn’t keep them in stock.”

On Thursday, her store’s supply of SKLZ full-face softball fielder shields, which the store sells for $39.99, were thinning.

“The problem is that we’re selling all the smalls and mediums,” Billy said. “All I have left are the larges, so it’s the younger girls that are getting them.”

Venturella admitted that infield masks are rarely seen at the Division-I level, despite the same 43-foot pitching distance, but she understands the value.

“I had a situation actually where a former pitcher of mine was hit when I was coaching at the University of Iowa ... and it was a huge injury,” she said. “So I understand why that if something happened in the past, of course you might want to prevent that from happening in the future.”

Mandating a solution

While some youth leagues have begun mandating face masks for infielders, the NFHS, the NCAA, the ASA and the IHSA have not.

“To be honest, I don’t hear a lot about it,” the IHSA’s Troha said. “Occasionally where you have an instance where a girl gets hit, people come out and tend to make that case that we need to do something else or make the pitching masks mandatory. Honestly, I hear very little about it day to day.”

Prairie Ridge pitcher Kirsten Stevens, whose batted ball struck Efflandt’s face, still takes the field without a mask.

“It’s a personal choice,” Stevens’ coach, Buck, said. “I almost liken it to wearing a helmet for a bicycle or motorcycle.”

But Hayli Lagerhausen wishes that on April 27, 2009, somebody had told her to wear a mask when her fateful pitch, which was supposed to be inside, missed its mark and instead went right down the middle.

South Beloit’s batter took advantage. Hayli froze.

“I remember it coming at me,” Hayli said. “I’m standing there wondering, ‘why aren’t you moving?’ ”

She didn’t black out when the ball struck her face, but flipped over backwards and fell face first on the ground. Her father was immediately at her side.

“He said that he was out in the circle before I even hit the ground,” Hayli said.

After four hours in the emergency room, and several frustrating visits to plastic surgeons, Hayli waited out the injury as it healed itself.

But her father in that instant became an outspoken supporter of masks as long as there are composite bats in softball.

“Everybody’s wrapped up on no steroids, no steroids, no steroids, but you allow these girls to use bats that are on steroids,” he said. “So if they were to take these bats and tone them down – take them off steroids – don’t make them quite so explosive – then there would be no need for the masks.”

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