A group of boys is outside Austin Meehan Middle School in Mayfair, scooping up the melting snow for one last snowball fight.
Inside the school’s gymnasium, however, a group of girls is already engaged in an annual rite of spring – softball tryouts.
Health and physical education teacher Sue Newnam stands in front of 16 hopefuls, laying out her ground rules before calling on Devinne Corson, the team’s returning shortstop, to demonstrate basic fielding techniques.
As Newnam rolls ground balls her way, Corson looks to already be in midseason form, cleanly plucking each one.
“See how her center of gravity is down low and her head is up?” calls the coach.
On cue, Corson loses her focus and lets a ball roll through her legs. The lapse earns a teasing rebuke from Newnam and laughs from the rest of the girls.
At the middle grades level, interscholastic sports is all about having fun and learning the game, says District Athletic Program Manager Rick Howard. And in recent years, the District’s middle grades athletics offerings have expanded dramatically.
“Before, we only had pure middle schools playing sports, so there were only 44 schools eligible to compete,” he explains.
“Since we aligned with the PIAA in 2004, any school with grades 6 through 8 can field a team. Now, there are 136 eligible schools.”
The biggest interscholastic middle grades sports are track, basketball, volleyball, baseball (for boys), and softball (for girls). Districtwide, says Howard, there are 152 teams with upwards of 2,000 students participating.
Furthermore, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 strategic plan includes a directive for every school with middle grades to offer at least two intramural athletic programs.
“That we have middle grades athletics at all is something to be proud of,” Howard says.
“A lot of districts don’t have those developmental opportunities.”
But there are still wide disparities across schools in resources and skill levels.
Stephanie Lackey, a reading teacher at Kearney Elementary School in Northern Liberties, started the school’s entire athletics program from scratch just four years ago.
“When I came to Kearney, it was a K-5 school, so there were no athletics,” she explains.
Lackey says the biggest challenge was trying to introduce the game without proper facilities and equipment.
“Most of these kids have never played softball,” she says.
“I had to teach them how to throw a ball, where to set up, and how to field. But it’s completely different trying to do that on concrete.”
On a bright but brisk March day of practice outside the school, the challenges are still evident.
During a throwing drill, softballs are flying everywhere. Errant tosses scoot out into oncoming traffic. A few girls, underdressed in shorts or T-shirts, mutter into their gloves about the cold.
Just when the team starts to settle into a rhythm, the wind picks up and blows a plastic dumpster into the middle of their makeshift field.
But thanks in no small part to Lackey’s infectious enthusiasm, most of the girls stay focused and upbeat.
It helps that this year they have thousands of dollars worth of new equipment.
“I wrote a grant through an organization called Good Sports,” says Lackey.
“We got a ton of equipment – about 30 gloves, four or five bats, a brand new set of catcher’s equipment, and new balls.”
Good Sports, a nonprofit organization, has donated over $4 million in sports equipment to disadvantaged youth.
“Kearney exemplified why we do what we do,” says Davin Lencz, community partnerships manager at Good Sports.
“Three years ago, they had no programs. Then kids were interested in playing sports, but there was no equipment. These are kids who otherwise wouldn’t be playing sports.”
While that’s true for many District middle grades programs, it’s different for schools in the river wards and the Northeast.
“There’s haves and have-nots in Philly,” explains Richard Kirby, who for the past seven years has coached softball at Conwell Middle School in Kensington.
“Some teams have trouble getting 12 kids with a completed physical. It’s exciting when a girl can catch a ball in the outfield.”
Kirby adds, “We make the playoffs every year, but then we run into the teams who are all kids whose parents can afford private coaching.”
Meehan’s Newnam knows she is one of the lucky ones.
Not only does she have a big indoor gym that is available for practices; her teams are usually built around girls who have years of softball experience at local athletics clubs.
Devinne Corson is a perfect example.
“I started playing softball two years ago for Mayfair Athletic Club,” says the 5’1”, 100-pound shortstop.
She started learning important lessons early.
“I stopped being scared of the ball after the first time I got hit,” Corson says matter-of-factly.
“It was a practice, and the ball bounced up and hit me right in the face. I’ve never been scared of it since.”
In fielding drills during Meehan’s second week of tryouts, Corson’s confidence is evident. As the rest of the girls rotate through the different infield positions and take grounders, Corson remains a fixture at shortstop, cleanly fielding everything thrown her way while also giving the other girls direction and encouragement.
“She will definitely be my captain,” says Newnam. “She’s a natural leader, and she knows the game so well. It really cuts down on the amount of stuff I have to demonstrate myself.”
Seven other girls trying out for Meehan’s team have played organized softball before, most for neighborhood-based athletic clubs like Mayfair.
Now in its 46th year, the Mayfair Athletic Club currently has about 60 girls ranging in age from 7 to 18 playing on their softball teams, says treasurer Cathy Gibson. Teams participate in the Northeast Peanut League, playing 16 regular season games each spring.
“Baseball and softball are still the number one sport in our neighborhood,” says Gibson. “Up here, it’s still the American game.”
No one knows that better than Newnam, who was raised in the neighborhood and attended St. Hubert’s, a Catholic school right down the street from Meehan.
“Growing up, I was always playing stickball or cornerball in the streets,” she recalls fondly. “I still remember watching Phillies’ games with my father every summer.”
With a few weeks to go before Meehan’s first game on April 13, the girls still haven’t taken batting practice at all, and there are still possible cuts to be made and positions to assign.
But Newnam, Corson, and the rest of the team are more than ready for spring to finally arrive.
“I just love softball,” says the coach. “I can’t wait for the season to get here.”