by Linda L. Esterson, photos by Kelly Heck
Julie (Backof) Boden holds eight single season softball records at McDaniel College in Westminster. She’s atop the leaderboard for highest batting average, most home runs, hits, runs scored, runs batted in and total bases, among others, and she sits among the leaders in many other
categories. Boden starred for the Green Terror from 1995-98, and earned All American and All Academic American honors for Division III. This followed a stellar career at Westminster High School, where she played varsity softball all four of her years there.
But Boden’s softball roots go back further to the Westminster Jaycees Softball League, which for nearly 50 years has held an organized program for girls at Jaycees Park, at Johahn Drive and Uniontown Road.
The league was founded in 1967 to allow girls in the community to play organized softball. Over time, the league grew to nearly 600 players, and now is divided into four divisions by school grade (Rookie K-1; Bantam 2-4; Ponytail 5-7; and Junior 8-18 years).
A few college students come back each year to play a final summer if they have a late birthday.
The program kicks off in early April with a preseason tournament, which enables coaches to evaluate players and what their needs are. Games run through June, and the season culminates in a post-season tournament. Midway through the season is Family Day, with all-star games for each division, a cookout and carnival-like atmosphere with contests and games. Currently, about 300 players fill rosters with 12-15 girls per team.
“Our philosophy is that we want the girls to enjoy themselves, have fun and basically learn the fundamentals of the game of softball,” says Herb Eyler, league president and also coach of his daughter’s team. “This is viewed as a recreational, fun, family-oriented program. Win or lose, the girls go home at the end of the day smiling.”
Boden grew up three miles from the park, and recalls spending several days a week there, learning the fundamentals of softball by playing in the slow pitch league. According to Eyler, it’s one of the only remaining slow pitch leagues in Carroll, Baltimore and Frederick counties. Today, despite and players desire increasing competition from fast pitch leagues, the Jaycees program still thrives.
Eyler says the league teaches players how to swing a bat, throw, catch, run the bases and work together as a team.
“It’s fun to watch the players develop from girls who can hardly swing a bat,” he says. “They play from kindergarten through 18 years, develop friendships they take with them and come back as parents and become coaches for their children.”
A few years ago, Boden ran into Steffanie Engel, a former teammate (and a current coach), and learned the league still existed. “I was shocked they are able to keep such a vibrant program in slow pitch when everybody around is playing fast pitch,” she says, citing the consistent teams and schedule and affordability as key selling points for the league.
Her earliest memory is being a “Twinkie,” in the bantam division at nine years old. She pitched and “ran around.” Her father coached some of her teams, and she joined the Jaycees’ Westminster Rockets travel slow pitch team, which went three times to the national tournament.
“I learned a great deal and made great friendships,” she says. “It really helps kids grow.”
Boden made the transition to fast pitch when she entered high school, and attributes the focus on fundamentals in the Jaycees program as a crucial foundation for her success long-term.
Like Boden, Kelly Smith, a senior at Westminster High School, got the bulk of her training in the Jaycees league. Smith started playing as soon as she could, at age 4, at the YMCA. She joined the Jaycees league, which is walking distance from her home, the following year. Softball is in her genes, she says, as members of each generation dating back to her great grandfather played the sport.
Smith prefers the slow pitch game offered through the Jaycees. “It’s more natural to me,” says Smith, who played for Westminster High School and travel teams for three seasons and is taking this year to concentrate on enjoying the Jaycees program one last time before heading off to college and hopefully playing club ball. The last three years, she would leave the school field and head straight to the Jaycees field for games, which proved stressful.
“Fast pitch is a lot more competitive – it makes it not as much fun,” she says. “There’s competition at the Jaycees but not to that extent. It’s about fun more than it is about being as serious.”
Today, Boden’s 11-year-old daughter Caitlin plays for the Jaycees, and has spent three years on the same team. Unlike other leagues, the Jaycees keeps players on teams through an entire division, and they play with the same teammates and learn from the same coaches for three years. This gives the coaches a chance to get to know the players’ strengths and challenges in an effort to help them develop over a three-year period without having to meet them and learn about them over and over again each year.
“The Jaycees program will enhance her ability to play fast pitch when the time comes,” says Boden. “It’s an excellent foundation.”
Boden serves as an assistant coach for Caitlin’s team. She remembers her positive experience and wants the same for her daughter.
“The Jaycees provided an excellent foundation for myself and any kid growing up today playing softball,” she says. “The kids from the Jaycees are some of the best players because they know the fundamentals.”
This spring, as Smith steps up to the plate, takes her practice swings, and looks out to the field, she’s doing it in slow motion. She’s thinking about 12 years playing on Johahn Drive, about playing for the love of the sport and the friendships she’s made. She’ll give herself the same pep talk, “Gotta get a hit, get someone in, get on base.”
“But this year will be a lot different for me,” she says. “It’s definitely about fun, not winning or losing. I want to enjoy my last year. The Jaycees is home for me.”
BEGINNINGS OF THE PROGRAM
The Westminster Jaycees Softball Program held its first games in 1968, after a survey was sent to the Westminster community the year before to gauge interest. The program was modeled after a similar program in Cockeysville. The first year, 60 girls participated on four teams and games were held at West Middle School. In the 1980’s the league relocated to its current home at Jaycees Park.
In 1968, the registration fee was $5.00 to cover equipment and umpire costs, and four companies sponsored the teams, providing uniform jerseys and hats. The sponsors were Ray L. Owings, Inc., the Westminster Jaycettes, the Westminster Optimist Club, and the Westminster Motor Co.
League founders and early leaders were Sam Greenholtz and Ray Owings, who proudly watches games today, featuring his granddaughters Skylar Engel and Samantha Owings.
“He feels great pride when he comes up to the fields and even at times reminds (me) to keep the dugout clean and shows the score on his personal score sheet,” says Steffanie Engel, Owings’ daughter. “He often sees former players and coaches that are now continuing the tradition that was a dream so many years ago.
“Ray is happy to see that this league, even with all the other options offered to young girls, continues to bring such great excitement and spirit,” she adds.