THOMASVILLE – Davidson County softball is rich in tradition. Softball flourishes in nearly every corner of the county and the list of household names who made an impact locally before going off to a big-time college grows longer with each passing year.
Unfortunately, the old adage of too much of a good thing never applied to softball. Unlike baseball, where local athletes can showcase their talents in front of home crowds during the summer, softball virtually disappears once school lets out. Girls often gravitate to traveling teams and spend their summer traversing the state with very few, if any at all, stops in the area.
Those days are over.
Softball fans and players alike finally can stay in touch with the sport they love through the dog days of summer, as a new venture is paving the way for a whole new level of excitement for the sport. The Davidson County Legion Post 8 Choppers took the field for the first time this summer, bringing the area’s brightest stars on the softball diamond together for the first time.
The Choppers recently joined a pilot program that started a year ago in western North Carolina. Following the success of the initial 12-team league, the American Legion of North Carolina sanctioned and expanded the league to 18 teams for this summer.
So far, so good.
“The talent definitely is here,” said first year Choppers manager Dale Odom. “We’ve got the roots here and that’s part of American Legion athletics. It’s a grass-roots effort and fills a void in the softball community. Baseball has always been there but the travel ball thing has taken off so much in recent years. This helps fill that community void. It gives them the opportunity to come back and play together. American Legion and Davidson County means a lot to all of us.”
With no shortage of talent in the area, Odom has felt for some time that Davidson County easily could support a summer Legion program. After spending the past few years trying to get in the ear of anyone who would listen, Odom finally got his wish.
“About six years ago, I put a bug in here that we should get softball going,” Odom said. “Every year I would hit [Jim Lippard] up at least once. Last year, some guys in the Burke County area made it happen. I think I just bugged him enough that they finally said we’ll give you a shot. A lot of things happen from just being at the right place at the right time. I want to be here and I want it to be successful. The girls are so much fun and for the most part they’ll just run through a brick wall for you. I’m enjoying it. “
Legion 8 plays its home games at various fields throughout Davidson County with the make-up of talent being equally diverse. Stars from Central Davidson and Ledford are now rivals turned teammates, and the area’s strength is proving to be a minor weakness. With no shortage of talent and only a finite amount of positions for play, juggling girls in and out of the lineup who are used to playing every day is one of Odom’s biggest challenges.
“The talent definitely is here,” said Odom. “The hardest part that I’ve seen is that we’ve got 24 girls here at every game trying to get playing time, and that’s difficult. There are different things we’re trying to accomplish. We want to win. That will spawn more interest in the program. We also want them to participate, but it’s impossible to get everyone in every night. There are going to be some girls who are upset and may not share a good story. Every one of the girls in our dugout is a starter. That’s what they’re used to. When it doesn’t happen, they wonder and they question. We have to battle that but we’re hoping they have good stories to share and will help us grow moving forward.”
As the season progressed, Odom also found that Davidson County, while rich in talent, is far from the only softball powerhouse area in North Carolina. With such a talented squad, Odom realizes that the novelty of summer softball only will last so long and eventually, for him sooner rather than later, success will be the measuring stick.
“What has happened through the years is that with the proliferation of travel softball, we like to think we have the market cornered here, but clearly we don’t,” Odom said. “There is so much talent in softball at the high school ranks. It’s just amazing. The games we have played so far in our season have proven to us that this is the real thing. This is real softball with really talented individuals. This legion program is going to have to prove itself. The talent is so entrenched here and the knowledge base with softball and the experience with softball around here are so in depth that you really have to prove that this is legit before you start seeing people take hold of it and embrace it.”
Odom takes over the fledgling program following a long coaching career that has seen stops in several sports. The Lexington High School and University of North at Chapel Hill alum has spent the past 30 years dabbing in one sport or another, accumulating and passing on knowledge to young people much like his mentors did to him. From Mike Roberts at Chapel Hill to Franklin Goss, Odom always felt like coaches and mentors had something to offer if given the chance.
“In terms of learning the sport, from the organizational and professionalism side of it, I learned a lot of that from Coach Roberts in Chapel Hill,” said Odom. “The game portion of it – Coach Goss was very influential. Just his knowledge of the game was incredible. Randy Holmes taught me that sometimes when you have enough talent, you just roll the balls out there and get out of the way. Every stop along the way somebody gives you something if you’re paying attention. I’ve got so many lessons that I thought it was time to return the favor.”
While getting the girls playing time on the field proved to be a challenge, getting his team to bond off it was a focus. Odom learned over the years that softball players play better when they feel comfortable with teammates. Odom felt that any success the Choppers were going to have hinged on their ability to acclimate to each other. The bonds finally started forming following one of those long customary Legion bus rides home from a road game.
“The experience has been great,” Odom said. “A lot of things have to happen, but to get them all to come together in such a short season you have to have some things outside of softball. On a trip back from Rowan County, we stopped at Cookout. It was neat to finally see not just the North girls sitting together or the Ledford girls sitting together, but they all started to mix. One of the simplest things is learning everybody’s names. They’re starting to know the names and are making connections. I learned a long time ago, a smart guy used to say that guys have to play good to feel good where girls need to feel good to play good. They have to get to know each other and it’s starting to happen.”
Haley Phelps, a senior pitcher from Central Davidson, said her teammates finally started bonding and building those relationships that are key to any successful program.
“It’s been really cool, especially being on the first team,” said Phelps. “I’m having a great time. I think we have pretty good talent. Since we all go to different schools we don’t really know each other that well and that was the hard part. I think we’re playing as a team. I think we’re expected to win and expected to show out for Davidson County and so far, we’re doing that. We have a bunch of friendships starting to form and I think as the season goes along we’ll come together.”
Odom said the program is on a three-year plan with hopes of being successful as soon as possible. While he doesn’t place as much emphasis on winning championships in the first season, Odom understands that success on the field is the easiest path to success off the field.
“We want to be competitive this year,” Odom said. “Our goal this year is to start it. We want to get people excited about being here and I hope we accomplish that. If along the way, if we can be competitive, great. Next year, it’s not just to be out here but to start growing and getting better. We want to establish our identity. With Davidson County softball the expectations are very simple: you win championships. That’s our goal. We have to make that happen and that will continue to grow the interest. Part of our goal is that we’re accepted in the high school community. We have met some closed doors but there are some open doors, too.”
One way to solve the playing time problem, Odom said, is the creation of a junior Legion team to compliment the Choppers. Odom hopes the success of the Choppers will create enough interest for a junior team sometime in the near future.