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Batting for a League of Their Own

When school resumes after the mid-winter break, the high school’s girls softball team will warm up on their home softball field at Thurston Middle School, newly outfitted with a long-expected irrigation system.

The project slides home just days before the team starts their third season.

The field was refurbished a year ago, prior to the team’s second season. The first year, the girls made do with a field at El Morro Elementary that was in poor condition and poorly maintained, according to parents Rick Putnam and Johnna Gherardini, whose daughters Haley and Kennedi, respectively, both juniors at the high school, are on the varsity softball team.

The Thurston baseball diamond was transformed into a softball facility that included a shed, stands, and field grooming equipment, as well as more sprinklers. But lack of adequate irrigation and improper maintenance made playing conditions unsafe, according to Putnam. Softball fields need water and grooming to keep the playing surface soft, said Putnam, who watered the field himself with a hose.

Despite field maintenance efforts by parents, the girls played last season on a surface that was “like sliding on cement,” Gherardini said.

The school district allocated about $150,000 for the Thurston softball field, according to Gherardini.  Given such an investment, she anticipated a more effective maintenance plan.

Earlier this week workers were installing a permanent water outlet to the Thurston infield so that the coach will no longer need to run a hose to water it down.

This is “an addition to the regular irrigation,” said Norma Shelton, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services. Routine maintenance work is done on school fields during the mid-winter break, she pointed out. “We will be ready for the beginning of the season,” she added.

Putnam and Gherardini have been going to bat for their softball-playing daughters since 2007 when they first cobbled together a softball Little League. “It’s been such a long struggle,” said Gherardini. Their four-team league dwindled to one that had to travel to play during their last season.

The parents also pushed for a high school team in 2009. “Our girls would spend half of their practice weeding and maintaining the field,” said Gherardini of the El Morro field.

Pleas for a better playing field met silence until Gherardini hired an attorney, whose letter to school officials cited Title IX, landmark 1972 legislation that in effect requires schools to support academics or athletic pursuits equally regardless of gender. Only then she heard from administrators, who pledged district funds for the Thurston field.

It apparently made a difference. Coach Mike Hunter led the girls to a 6-6 record and the post-season playoffs, the first in 28 years at the high school.

This season, Coach Alan Ludloff expressed optimism about the new irrigation system.  “Water is a big deal,” said Ludloff, who will work with 21 girls, just enough for varsity and junior varsity teams. “I’m all about the safety for the kids.”

The season may be different for parents too. And after pushing their cause for better fields, Gherardini and Putnam may have a chance to leave the sidelines and watch the action from the stands.

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