The yellow softball kicked up dust as it bounced along the dry Gates Softball Complex infield, glanced off a player’s glove and into the outfield. Samantha Billion didn’t hesitate speaking what was on her mind.
Standing at first base with a pink mask around her face, she looked toward her teammate on the Hardin County Smokies and offered words of encouragement.
“It’s OK. That’s why we have teammates behind us,” she said.
And with that, a ball was hit to Nick Payne, who fielded the bouncer and threw it to second base as the team practiced for the final time before competing this weekend in the state tournament in Bowling Green.
For the 11 players, who range in age from 14 to 55 and come from all parts of Hardin County, the game of softball provides camaraderie, exercise, friendship, fun, a sense of accomplishment and more, Coach Tamara Waller said.
“It means a lot to them to be out here,” said Waller, one of the Special Olympics team’s six coaches.
Many of the softball players also participate in other Special Olympics events such as basketball and bowling, so they previously have experienced being part of a team.
“They build lifelong friendships and form bonds,” she said. “At the beginning of the season, they all had to get used to each other. As the year has gone on, I think the amount of camaraderie and sportsmanship has increased.”
Many of the players were on other softball teams last year. This is the first season for the Smokies.
For Daniel Neptune, his love for baseball can be enjoyed on the softball field.
His mother, Dayana Neptune, said he watches baseball on television and then tries to take what he sees to the field with the Smokies.
“He’s put in the work and is trying to get better at it,” she said.
She said he hopes to try out for the Central Hardin High School baseball team next year.
The players all have varying skill levels, Waller said.
Dayana Neptune said she enjoys watching her son play and associate with other players while learning more about the game and its strategies.
“It gives them a sense of belonging and a sense of accomplishment,” she said of the team. “It’s an overall good experience for all of them.”
Waller said there are four Hardin County Special Olympic softball teams. The Smokies are classified as 1B, which is the lower level of the teams.
“They have gotten better as we have gone along,” she said.
Waller said the Smokies played six regular-season games and then participated in a regional tournament, which the team won, qualifying them for this weekend’s tournament play.
“We scored 36 runs in two games in the regional,” she said. “We were having a hard time scoring when we started.”
J.T. Sutherland, who coordinates the local Special Olympics softball programs, sat and watched practice Wednesday night. As he did, about another 10 family members, some wearing the orange and blue Smokies T-shirts, sat or stood by bleachers offering encouragement or just watching.
“It’s their opportunity to play in a real-world situation,” he said. “... It gives them an opportunity to be competitive and to feel the joy of having an accomplishment.”
Sutherland said what players learn from taking part in Special Olympics, whether it’s softball or any other sport, is something they can carry over into other parts of the players’ lives when they meet challenges.
“That sense of doing something and accomplishment are important and carry over into other aspects of life,” he said.
Some of the players are more verbal than others and coaches for the Smokies constantly talked with them, whether it was when they were hitting or in the field teaching them where to throw the ball and why.
Emily Bagley, one of three girls on the team, spent most of her time at practice as catcher.
“It’s hot but we like to be here and practice,” she said. “But it is really hot tonight.”
Billion, who played on a different team last year, said she has played three years and being on the field and with her teammates is “a lot of fun.”
“I like the team and I like the atmosphere,” she said. “I play because I have fun.”