At first glance, it doesn’t look like a traditional softball game.
The bases are closer together than normal, there are cones in the outfield to mark where a fence would be and there’s even a tee ready near home plate, just in case.
That’s because these aren’t traditional softball players — the participants in this league are women aged from their 50s into their 80s who are either new to the sport or returning from a layoff.
This is the brand-new Ladies’ Pioneer League, a place where women in The Villages can pick up the game of softball for the first time or hone their skills without pressure.
The organizer, coach and cheerleader of the league is Avis Vaught, of the Village of Belvedere. While many women living in The Villages did not have the opportunity to play softball or baseball as children, Vaught played Little League as she grew up in Miami, but was kicked off her team when an opposing squad objected to playing against a girl.
Her entire career was spent coaching students — boys and girls — at all levels and in several different sports. At one point, she said, she had teams in five sports in the state championships in Delaware.
Vaught, an avid athlete in sports across The Villages, helped start the Pioneer League because she realized that many current or prospective women’s softball players didn’t have the opportunity to learn and enjoy the game as she did.
“A lot of these guys never had the chance,” she said.
Despite having one arm in a sling as a result of shoulder surgery, Vaught sets up the field, marking where bases are, putting cones to mark the outfield fence — a little farther out each game — and setting up the teams.
There are four teams in the league, and only two play on a given day, but if someone from another team shows up, they’re put on one of the two teams playing. The pitcher is not on either of the teams, but someone with more experience brought in to give the players the best chance of getting a hit.
And everyone hits the ball, one way or another. There are no strikeouts and no walks. If a batter doesn’t hit a pitched ball, they put one on a tee and smack it from there.
The players are a mixed bag. Some currently or previously played in the recreation leagues but others have never picked up a bat or donned a glove before.
Dellie Saxe of the Village of McClure is one of the novices. She had never played softball before moving to The Villages about a year ago. In fact, the plan had been that she and her husband would play a lot of golf.
Instead, Davey Saxe began playing Division 3 softball, then joined the Restricted Bat League and the Central Florida League. So, at the urging of her husband, Dellie joined the Ladies’ Pioneer League.
“I’ve never played before,” she said. “I had to learn where to stand.
“Avis is great, the ladies are great — I’m hooked!”
Davey came out to watch his wife play and showed pride in the progress Dellie had made as a shortstop.
“We’re a softball family now,” he said.
Other players are using the Pioneer League to get back into softball after a layoff. Jan Barber of the Village of Tamarind Grove played Recreation League softball for nine years, but underwent surgery a year ago.
“Now I’m coming back,” Barber said. “This is wonderful to get me going.”
On Tuesday, the Wagon Wheels beat the Cowgirls, 8-4, but the final score seemed less important than what the players were taking away from the game — enhanced skills, renewed enjoyment or a first-time experience on the softball field.
Senior writer Steve Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or email@example.com.