Ninth-grade girls in Bloomfield have been arriving at the high school and joining the varsity softball team never having touched a glove before. Without a town league or a middle school team, there were few opportunities for students to play.
Now all of that is changing, thanks to the time and dedication of Carmen Arace Intermediate School math instructional coach Mary Kay Rendock.
It’s not just about teaching students what a strike zone is and how to swing a bat, though. For Rendock, the relationships students develop and the confidence the sport offers are what truly make the experience worthwhile.
“Being on a team is really special,” says Rendock.
Rendock has played softball since she was 18 and still plays on a Windsor Locks co-ed league. She coached and supported her own children’s teams when they were young, but after her son and daughter left for college, she looked for new ways to get involved with the sport.
She first volunteered at the high school, but when the varsity coach told Rendock that what the district really needed was a middle school team to prepare girls to play at the high school level, Rendock became the new middle school softball coach.
With the help of assistant coach and special education teacher Lauren Serafino, Rendock introduced softball to middle school students from around the district with clinics in the fall of 2015 and taught students how to play indoors. When spring came around, 35 girls tried out, and 19 made the team.
“I had 19 girls, and only one had played on an organized team before,” Rendock says. “We were really starting from scratch.”
The students in grades five through eight play in the CREC league, which Rendock says is just the right speed for her players. Students on most of the other teams in the league are also learning as they’re playing, and the coaches can agree to revise the rules as they see fit.
“We concentrated on having fun and swinging at balls that are not over their heads,” she says.
“The teamwork and camaraderie were fabulous. The students really supported one another,” Rendock adds. “They were all brand new, but they really stepped right up. They learned during every single game and became a little unit.”
Rendock says that parents were over the moon watching their kids play, and the crowds got bigger and bigger with each game. “It was great to get to meet some parents I had never met before,” Rendock says.
Team gets important boost
This spring, as Rendock prepared for her second season, she was elated to learn her hard work to grow the team had been backed by a $1,000 grant from California Casualty. California Casualty, an NEA Member Benefits provider, established the Thomas R. Brown Athletics Grant Program to provide support to public middle and high school sports programs negatively impacted by reduced budgets.
Rendock says that Bloomfield barely has the budget to offer a small stipend for coaches, and so she was making do with donated gloves, bats, and other equipment.
“Our number-one priority is uniforms and specialty catcher gloves,” Rendock says. “The kids are going to be so thrilled when they find out we’ve received this grant.”
Rendock has lots of plans for her team, including a night at the Yard Goats, and this spring she’s also offering a fifth-grade clinic to get more girls playing and ready to join the team.
It will take several seasons to see results at the varsity level, but the middle school students in Bloomfield have already gained a lot from their softball experience.
Wanting to play inspires students to keep their grades up, and Rendock says it also helps make them more well-rounded as individuals.
“They develop the confidence that they can try something new and be successful,” she adds.
The team also offers a warm and accepting environment for students who may face hardships outside of school.
“Being a part of a team where no one cares if you’re the ‘popular girl’ can be a shot in the arm of confidence,” Rendock says. “Our first day of practice I told the girls they couldn’t leave until they learned all of their teammates’ names. They come to understand that their teammates are going to be there for them and hold them up.”
Click here to apply for a California Casualty athletics grant for a sports program at your school.