By Harley Nefe
It’s time to dust off bats, balls and gloves, as the High Country Senior Softball League is gearing up for the 2021 summer season.
The High Country Senior Softball Team recently resumed play and is recruiting men ages 60 and over and women ages 50 and over to join in on the games.
Players get together every Monday at 9:30 a.m. at Avery County High School in Newland and on Fridays at 9:30 a.m. at the Watauga County Parks and Recreation’s Complex Field in Boone from April through September.
Interested participants are invited to choose one location to play at each week or play at both spots. Bats, balls and gloves are provided, but players can still bring their own or any other equipment they might need. There is no cost to get started.
There are two styles of play for the group: A competitive team that wants to play games against teams from surrounding areas and a casual team that wants to use the sport as a good way to be outside and get exercise.
“The way we work is if you feel uncomfortable playing in a game or buying a uniform and having everybody counting on you, a lot of people will just come out to practice,” said Bert Valery, organizer of the High Country Senior Softball League. “You can do any way you want. You can come and join a team immediately or you can just come to practice.”
Everybody who attends gets to practice batting and playing the field.
“I had a couple of people do that the whole year,” Valery said. “Then the following year, they came and said, ‘Bert, I’d like to join the team now.’”
The competitive team plays other senior teams from other areas like Burnsville, Tri-City, Hendersonville, Charlotte, Ashe County and Johnson City.
With COVID-19, a lot of things changed for the softball league.
“Last year, we probably played half as many games as we did in the past,” Valery said. “It was a big change to the whole concept of what we were doing. The games we did play, we did everything we could to follow the COVID-19 rules.”
Valery explained players wore masks and socially distanced. They also wiped down the balls and bats with alcohol between each batter.
“This year has gone much smoother, if I can even say it’s gone smoother, as we’re just getting started,” Valery said.
Players are still wearing masks, social distancing and wiping down equipment with alcohol this season.
“There seems to be a lot less worry about it this year because we are a senior league, and everybody on all the teams has already gotten both shots,” Valery said. “We feel a lot safer.”
This is the fifth year of the league after first being organized in 2017.
“I wanted people to be able to play ball in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s,” Valery said.
He realized the High Country was spread out, so he got facilities on the east side of the area and west side of the area.
During the first year, the meeting location was at Watauga County Parks & Recreation’s field off of State Farm Road for the east side facility and at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk for the west side facility.
Then during the second year, the group found Avery County Parks and Recreation’s field in Newland, which they have played at for the past four years.
“As it happens this year, we got a call from Avery County Parks & Recreation, and they’re going to have some extensive renovations done, so they asked if we could find another field during the renovations,” Valery said.
Now, they play at Avery County High School.
However, back in 2017, it was difficult for Valery to find interest in the beginning.
“The first year, it was just me,” Valery said. “I would go out to these facilities, and I would be there by myself. And the problem was, I was dropping fliers all over the High Country in parks and recreation departments, the YMCA, senior centers, but really nobody saw them. We weren’t getting the publicity.”
Then during the second year, Valery explained that he lucked out with newspapers.
“Our main source of advertising now is being in papers,” Valery said. “Literally everyone who has joined has either seen it by that or from a referral from another player. The great majority has been seeing it in the press. That has just been a miracle and has helped us so much.”
He further said, “I was really amazed. April 5 was our first day of practice all year. And it was at Avery County High School, which was a new location and on a new day. As it happened, the paper came out, and we had four people come who were brand new that saw the ad in the paper. So, I just thought, woah! This is terrific.”
Then the following Friday, April 9, three more new people showed up.
“Come and participate with us and have fun,” Valery said.
Valery further described one of last week’s practices and how two women came. One was 78 years old, and the other was 58.
“After they were there for a little while and we were talking to them, it turns out they were mother and daughter,” Valery said. “They played very well, and I was amazed. They had fun, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Valery said he used to live in Florida, and he originally started a senior softball league there when he was 69.
“Ten years later, the Florida league now has has six teams of 15 people each playing,” Valery said. “It’s so popular, we formed our own league here!”
The senior softball league has also become a great social environment and a place to make new friends, as members often go out to lunch together after practices and games.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie in it,” Valery said. “I was pleasantly surprised to see that we really got to know each other. My really close friends up here are from the softball team.”
Watauga County Parks & Recreation notices and supports Valery and the senior softball team’s efforts.
“They have a really strong leader and someone who is organized and stays after it and wants people to participate,” said Stephen Poulos, Watauga County Parks & Recreation Director. “He has done a great job. Between Watauga and Avery counties, he is always digging for players, and they come out and practice and play games. Bert Valery is a champ.”
It’s never too late to bring back the glory days on the diamond. For more information on the senior softball team, give Bert Valery a call at 727-215-5560 or email him at [email protected].