AJAA’s Avon Softball Club Fosters Friendships & Fierce Competition
Photographer / Tony Gude
Last fall at a Halloween costume contest, members of Avon Junior Athletic Association’s (AJAA) Avon Softball Club dressed up as packets of hot sauce while their coaches dressed as taco vendors. Though they didn’t snag first prize, it didn’t matter. The girls were there to goof off and have fun because sometimes that’s the point.
“It gave us some positive attention for something other than the sport, which I think is important,” says Jarod Turner, Executive Director of AJAA. “That’s the struggle in this industry. We give kids so many opportunities to express themselves as an athlete, but sometimes I fear that they don’t have enough time to let their hair down.”
“Our AJAA volunteers developed a program that has been able to translate to all of our travel programs,” Turner says. “It’s really exciting for AJAA to have an opportunity for young ladies to play at a higher level.”
Last year, Turner was approached by a group of coaches and parents in their 8U Rec League to see if there was a way to let their girls continue to play together on the same team since the players and parents got along so well.
“It’s really hard to do in rec sports because we don’t want coaches hand-picking their teams before we’ve had an opportunity to draft kids and balance out a league,” Turner says. “When that happens, it causes unfair competition. But being used to playing with each other and having chemistry is a big part of being on a team.”
Turner believes that players are made in the offseason and teams are built during the season. Therefore, he and his colleagues looked at how they could give these ladies an opportunity to compete at an appropriate level and get them to stay together throughout the whole year so that that they could get extra training and build upon team chemistry.
Head coach Brad Hemmelgarn notes that for these girls to make a one-year commitment to the Avon Softball Club really builds character.
Hemmelgarn is married to the AJAA Softball Commissioner, Megan. Their daughter, Autumn, is one of the many players on this team who takes advantage of extra lessons.
“I really enjoy pitching,” Autumn says. “I get excited when I have to go to pitching practice.”
“My wish is that as they continue to grow, these girls truly realize that they can do anything,” he says.
This 11-member, 10U team is comprised primarily of 9-year-olds who played together in several fall tournaments as well as Sunday double-headers. They completed strength and speed training sessions with AJAA’s partners at Unbreakable Athletics Academy in Plainfield. In January and February, they moved to once-a-week indoor practices, and as spring begins to bloom, these young ladies will play in four or five tournaments through the end of June. They’ll also play double-headers in the Sunday Alliance League. In all, they’ll play somewhere between 25-35 games a year.
The tournaments this team participates in are primarily here in Central Indiana. The double-header plays in the Indianapolis area but will go as far as Columbus, Noblesville and Greenfield. Some weekends the team plays in Avon at the AJAA diamonds.
To land a spot in the club, there is an open tryout during the third week of July. At that time, the coaches will look at the players they had the previous year and determine how these players performed in game situations versus just doing drills to showcase their talents.
“Some of the girls will likely move on with the team while others may lose their spot to someone else,” Turner says. “It’s a competitive process. These girls must have athleticism, a competitive edge and a passion for the game.”
In fact, many of them take private lessons to help them in pitching, catching, strength and agility.
“I think our team is getting into a groove and it’s fun watching the girls working hard and getting better,” Coach Hemmelgarn says.
Parent Rebecca Shoemaker says that the first season was a huge learning curve for the girls, coaches, parents and AJAA, but she credits Megan’s persistence in helping along the process. Their goal for the fall of 2020 will be to expand the program beyond this one team.
“The microcosm that is a travel team means that these families spend a good deal of time together, thereby becoming their own little community,” Turner says. “Even when the team is not competing in a game, oftentimes the players and their parents find themselves gathering together.”
Daren and Rebecca Shoemaker say that they love the relationships that have formed among the girls.
“They encourage each other and are a great support to one another,” Rebecca says. “It’s nice to see positive female relationships forming.”
Their daughter, Lydia, certainly agrees.
“This softball team has changed my life,” Lydia says. “I think I will do this career for a long time. The friends that I have made are awesome and funny.”
Turner maintains that the life lessons these students learn, both on and off the field, are invaluable.
“The most important thing in playing youth sports is learning how to cope with situations,” Turner says. “People need to learn at an early age that you’re going to lose more often that you’re going to win.”
Through it all, they’re acquiring self-awareness and self-confidence.
“They’re learning how to make a mistake and fail forward,” Turner adds. “All these things are important in the growth of a child.”
Not surprisingly, these young ladies are naturally competitive. Turner references a word that Darrell Waltrip coined years ago called “coopetition” in which athletes work together to push themselves to succeed.
“If you recognize that someone else is doing something better than you, it gives you something to chase,” Turner says. “On the flip side, if you feel you’re the best one on the team, you’re never going to improve yourself.”
So, even though Turner wants his athletes to be a cohesive team, he knows that if they don’t compete against themselves and within their own team, they risk becoming complacent.
“They are all good friends but still trying to best each other, I would hope,” Turner says. “At this age, they move around from position to position trying to improve themselves.”
In sports, as in life, students model what they see.
“These children will play to the emotion they observe from their leadership so if you’ve got parents on the sidelines who are losing their minds, yelling at umpires, criticizing kids, and not giving any positive means of encouragement, what ends up happening is that the children start doing the same thing to each other,” Turner says.
Such is not the case with this team.
“Our parents help out in practice by shagging softballs or even running bases,” Coach Hemmelgarn says. They rely, too, on those who referee and umpire. That’s why the head coach must set a precedent that he is the only one to address the umpire.
“We cannot play games without officials and umpires,” says Turner, noting that those who choose to become umpires do not do it for the power or the paycheck. They do it for the love of the game.
“We have umpires and referees who will take the time to make personal connections with the children — to encourage them and explain why a call went a certain way,” says Turner, who encourages parents to check out rec leagues before having their child audition for a travel team as it’s not a good fit for everyone.
“If both parents work and time is really tight or if you’ve got multiple children, adding a commitment of travel sports could be a high-stress situation,” Turner says. “But if you’ve got a kid playing softball who is constantly asking you for extra batting practice, that’s a good indicator that she wants or needs more of the sport.”
For more information about the Avon Softball Club, visit ajaaonline.org or follow them on Facebook.