by Matt Vines, Assistant Sports Information Director
When collegiate softball shut down in early March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northwestern State softball players assumed they wouldn’t pick up a bat until the following fall.
But two Lady Demons found a summer opportunity to continue the sport they love – even at a time when hardly any athletes are participating in live sports.
Fifth-year senior Emma Hawthorne and junior Jensen Howell have played in the Florida Gulf Coast League for more than two weeks.
“It’s really exciting just to put a uniform on,” said Hawthorne, who is chronicling her experience for The Longview (Texas) News Journal. “The seniors thought their career was done when they cancelled the season.
“I knew this league would be a great opportunity to play, and with our season cut short, I wanted to make up for lost playing time. This will definitely help us get ready for next year.”
Hawthorne is playing both catcher and third base, positions in which she has started more than 50 games each at NSU.
The position versatility is helpful, especially when Hawthorne is catching her NSU teammate pitcher Howell on Team Impact.
“Having Emma there as a catcher has made it a lot easier from the pitching side of things because she knows me as a person, and we’re comfortable together,” said Howell, who discovered the league on social media. “We push each other and hold each other to high standards.
“It was rough when we first got here in terms of conditioning and getting used to softball again, but after two weeks, we feel like we’re back to normal.”
A sense of normalcy is the pervading feeling around the seven-team league, whose players are all staying at the same hotel in Sarasota and will play until late July.
Hawthorne said temperatures are checked daily, fans social distance in the stands and players wear masks in public.
“The league is taking precautions, such as sanitizing the dugout after each game,” Hawthorne said. “I’m definitely thankful for this league because we’re playing when so many others aren’t.
“Playing against girls from all types of schools has definitely made me better, and it opens my eyes to other ways of playing the game.”
Hawthorne and Howell face players from Power Five schools like Florida, Oklahoma and Washington mixed with other Division I members as well as junior Division II, Division III, junior college and NAIA.
“No matter where other players come from, it’s a great chance to compete,” Howell said. “You want to prove that you belong just as much as anybody does.
“You make yourself better with each pitch and repetition you take.”
Unlike summer wood bat leagues for baseball, summer softball is just beginning to take off.
NSU coach Donald Pickett said gathering enough players in the same place has been an impediment to widespread summer softball leagues, but he sees these types of summer leagues becoming the norm in future seasons.
“With the shortened regular season, I’m glad they are getting the opportunity to play and improve themselves against great competition,” Pickett said. “It’ll definitely pay off for them and for us.
“It puts them ahead of the curve since most players will have a six-month layoff from competitive softball going into our fall workouts, so them being able to have access to practice facilities and live competition will be a huge advantage for them.”
While Hawthorne has experienced Division I softball for the past four years, Howell made 12 appearances in a shortened 2020 after missing the fall season and playing in the junior college ranks in 2019.
“This is especially helpful for someone in Jensen’s situation because she can continue to get back into game shape and carry a big load for us next year,” said Pickett of a pitcher who compiled an 8-3 mark before the season ended.
“I think summer leagues like this will only continue to grow, and it took off this year because so many kids were looking for opportunities to work out and play when regular access to gyms, facilities and resources weren’t available.”