Teams step back to advance sport of softball

One of the more interesting changes to keep an eye on this spring is in high school softball, where the pitching distance has been moved back 3 feet.

This past December, the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) granted approval for the state to move forward with an experiment by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) that has softball pitchers dealing from 43 feet from home plate instead of 40 feet.

Oregon is one of two states taking part in this spring's experiment. Florida and Massachusetts already adopted the 43-foot distance in 2006 and 2008, respectively.

In an OSAA survey that drew responses from 128 of the 221 schools that offer softball in Oregon, 94 schools (73.4 percent) supported the 43-foot pitching distance for all classifications, varsity and sub-varsity.

"That 3 feet is going to make a big difference because it allows the ball to travel a little bit further," says North Medford softball coach Mike Mayben. "The pitcher's advantage is getting more movement on the ball. The hitter's advantage is it slows the game down and they have more time to see it."

The game of softball has long been dominated by pitchers at the 40-foot distance, leading to little or no offense in the low-scoring contests. The change will likely bring more players, offensively and defensively, into the picture and create a more complete experience for all players.

"The game will be a little more of a hitter's game and some of these strikeout pitchers won't have as many strikeouts," Mayben says. "I think there will still be some dominant pitchers out there, but it won't be like before."

From 40 feet, a 60 mph pitch, which is about 5 mph above average in high school, necessitates a reaction time of .45 seconds. That's equal to a 90 mph baseball pitched from the 60 feet, 6 inches. Moving the pitching rubber back 3 feet gives batters more reaction time (.49 seconds) and, conversely, gives pitchers more time to react to line drives back at them.

Another benefit to the move is that it will help pitchers gear up for college, where the pitching distance is 43 feet. Summer Gold and ASA softball games also use a 43-foot distance for high school, meaning many pitchers are having to deal with different distances during the spring and summer seasons.

"This just puts everybody on that same collegiate level in terms of distance and keeps things more consistent in the spring and in the summer," says Mayben.

While softball games with more action would be appealing, opponents of the switch say the longer distance could be harder on young pitchers' arms. The NFHS experiment is hopeful more data can be gleaned on the issue and that softball coaches, as in baseball, will be responsible in not overusing pitchers.

Only a few weeks into the season, Mayben says he hasn't observed any issues other than players simply needing time to adjust.

"A lot more defense has to be played now," he says, "and we're seeing a lot of balls off the end of bats and spinners because kids are ahead of it. I'm sure kids will catch up and it'll even up after a little while."

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ALLISON GIDA'S DECISION to make a verbal commitment to play basketball at the University of Utah was a no-brainer for the Ashland junior point guard.

The 5-foot-10 all-star has always enjoyed playing for teams that push the tempo and, most importantly, win a lot of games. In the Utes, she found both.

The Mountain West Conference tournament champions boast a 23-9 record and will face host Maryland tonight in the second round of the women's NCAA tournament.

"I knew I was going to go there, it was just hard to say 'yes' because it was a big commitment," Gida, 17, says of last Wednesday's decision.

Gida took an unofficial visit to the campus last Tuesday through Thursday and, obviously, it didn't take much time to convince her that Utah was a perfect fit. Gida, who was the Southern Sky Conference player of the year as a sophomore, averaged 13 points and helped lead Ashland to a fifth-place showing at state this past season.

"They were the ones that seemed the most committed to me as well," she says, noting the Utah coaches responded with a roar of approval when she gave her commitment.

Making the transition easier for Gida when she joins the 2010-11 Utah team is how many familiar faces are already in the Utes program.

Former Ashland High girls basketball coach Steve Farley joined head coach Elaine Elliott's staff last summer, and former Southern Oregon University men's basketball assistant Anthony Levrets became an assistant coach for Elliott in 2007. Also, former Grizzlies guard Josi McDermott, daughter of SOU men's basketball head coach Brian McDermott, is a redshirt freshman for Utah.

"That's just kind of a bonus," says Gida, who also has history playing with Utah freshman Janita Badon of Portland's Jefferson High during summer AAU basketball.

While Utah was pushing for an early commitment, Gida says that fell in line with what she wanted to do as well.

"I wanted to have fun my senior year so I just wanted to decide pretty quickly on where I wanted to go," says Gida, who can't officially sign with Utah until November. "I'm more relieved now. There's not so much stress on deciding where to go anymore."

While nothing is guaranteed, Gida should be in good position for playing time once she arrives on campus. The Utes graduate three players from this year's squad and have four juniors on the 13-player roster.

"They said I could be a point guard and a shooting guard and that the best players play," Gida says. "If you want to start, you just have to prove yourself. It's not based on grade, it's based on skill, so I just have to work to get (playing time) there."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

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