Softball face masks a growing trend at Dallas-area high schools, with one school district requiring head protection
Bishop Lynch softball coach Amy Wheeler has a chilling recollection of the line drive that struck her third baseman in the face in 2012.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” Wheeler said. “It hit her so hard that it literally flew her back a few feet.”
Rachel Hansen had such little time to react that she could only get her hand up enough to barely graze the ball before it slammed near her eye. Hansen ended up in the emergency room, and while there was no major damage, she said the traumatic experience killed her desire to play college softball.
“She got so lucky,” Wheeler said. “Where it hit her, the doctor said that was like the perfect place. It missed all of the bones and didn’t break anything.”
Hansen suffered only a “horrible bruise,” but her father immediately went online and ordered a protective face mask for his daughter to wear when she played defense. In recent years, more parents and coaches have been spending $40 to $60 on metal or plastic masks — some cover the forehead, nose, mouth and chin, others all but the forehead — to protect pitchers and corner infielders as softball has become more of a hitters game.
“We told her if she was going to play third base, it was mandatory that she wear it or she couldn’t play,” Hansen’s mother, Gina, said. “She wore it any time she had practice or during the game.”
As a senior, Hansen is playing second base — a position that affords more reaction time — so she no longer wears a mask. But she said that while a mask can get uncomfortable if it’s hot outside, “it’s worth it.”
Plano East’s Olivia Rosen will start wearing a mask when she is able to resume playing. The sophomore third baseman suffered a broken nose when she was struck by a line drive in a game Feb. 28.
Plano East coach Karen Kalhoefer said Rosen was playing at normal third-base depth, not in close looking for a bunt, but even then “I don’t think she saw it.”
Rosen wore a mask when she was younger but stopped before she got to high school. Her father has already bought her a new mask and will make sure she wears it.
“It was a horrible injury, but it could have been a lot worse,” Greg Rosen said. “She doesn’t want to wear the mask, but she knows she has to.”
Olivia said she shed the mask originally because the perception was “You only wore it if you were scared.”
Since 2006, high school players have been required to have an approved face mask/guard on their batting helmet. That same year, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) clarified that players may wear face/head protection in the field. The UIL plays softball by NFHS rules, so a defensive face mask is not required, leaving the decision up to each player or school.
But that’s just at the high school level.
“There are some leagues, the younger kids, it’s mandatory. If they’re in the infield, they wear a mask,” Kalhoefer said.
In 2011, the NFHS changed the pitching distance from 40 to 43 feet in an effort to have more balls put in play and get defenses more involved, but fewer strikeouts have meant more line drives. UIL media coordinator Kate Hector said in an email that “The Legislative Council and UIL Medical Advisory Committee will consider requiring face masks for softball players, if it is proposed in the future.”
“I think the UIL needs to look at it,” Ferris coach J.J. Eusay said. “The economy is causing a change in our sport. Select ball and club ball in the summer is really expensive. Some of these kids can’t afford to play in the summer, so they’re not as polished as they used to be.
“You’re putting kids at third base that maybe play two or three months out of a year, and you’ve got kids coming up to bat that are committed to Texas Tech and Texas A&M. You’ve got pitchers moved back three feet and bats that are a lot better than they used to be. It’s a recipe for something bad to happen.”
A Ferris third baseman was hit in the head by a line drive last year, and now the school’s pitcher, first baseman and third baseman all wear a face mask. Eusay said, “I’ve had conversations with my AD, and I’m trying to push a proposal to the board to possibly make it a mandate.”
Of the 19 schools that responded to a SportsDay email, 18 have at least one player in their program who wears a face mask now or has done so in the past. Richardson ISD athletic director Bob Dubey said the school district has had players suffer a broken nose, severe forehead contusion and have an ear torn partially off, so now all RISD third basemen have to wear a mask in practice and games. Dubey said some first basemen and shortstops use them as well.
“Since the mask rule, I am not aware of any serious injuries,” Dubey said in an email.
“I think it’s a good safety thing,” said Lake Highlands coach Kelly Baker, who offers her players three different face masks to choose from, including the option of a batting helmet with a mask on it. “Our district is a little bit different. We have a lot of kids who don’t play club [softball] and aren’t used to playing those positions.”
An Arlington Lamar pitcher was hit in the head by a line drive in 2011 and suffered what may have been a concussion. “Our district, I don’t know if it was coinciding with it, but we did establish a new concussion protocol not too long afterward,” coach Ken Livingston said.
Livingston’s pitcher is now his daughter, Brittany, and she wears a mask. But the Lamar coach said any type of statewide mandate might need to include more than just players.
“There are just as many coaches that have to dodge foul balls that don’t have protective head gear. Where do you stop it?” he said.