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Small-Group Rewards

Amherst Steele High School's fastpitch softball clinic continues to thrive 15 years after its first session. Part of its success is due to how head coach Bill Matthews designs the clinics: small groups, simple drill adjustments, and the inclusion of former student-athletes.

by Danielle Catalano

Matthews is entering his 23rd year as head coach of the fastpitch softball program at Amherst Steele High School, located about 40 miles west of Cleveland. He has dedicated his adult life to the sport, winning numerous conference, district, and regional championships, directing summer leagues, and presiding over several softball associations. Under Matthews's guidance, 12 of the Comets have earned All-Ohio honors and more than 30 have gone on to compete at the collegiate level.

In 2006, Matthews was inducted into the Ohio High School Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association (OHSFSCA) Hall of Fame, where he previously served as the association's president and currently directs its annual clinic, the largest in the state with 800 coaches in attendance. For the past 15 years, he has been applying this experience to coordinating Amherst Steele's summer and fall softball clinics as part of the program's fundraising efforts. A consistent profit of $1,500 is raised per clinic.

The goal though, isn't money—it's off-season skill enhancement, which Matthews says is part of the appeal of the clinics along with showing softball student-athletes how to develop and achieve realistic goals while they play the sport. Another part of the appeal, he adds, is that Amherst Steele alumni return to the community each year to participate in the clinics and further engage the younger student-athletes with the sport.

"A lot of the girls look up to the returning players as role models," Matthews says. "Some get a sense of, 'Hey, if these women started playing softball when they were my age and now they're playing college ball and traveling the country, look what's in store for me.'"

Because of his experience, it takes Matthews two days to organize the Comets' clinics. Fielding and hitting drills are reviewed by him, his four assistants (two of whom are former players), and recent Amherst Steele graduates who play college softball. The formula he uses is the same stressed at the state coaches clinics: understanding the fundamental skills of the sport. To do this, Matthews takes several factors into consideration.

Skill-level drills. Linear hitting, sliding, infield and outfield skills, short game, base running, bunting, and throwing progression are some of the skills reviewed during the Comets' clinic, which is two days long and lasts three hours per day.

"There's a lot we cover, but the idea isn't to exhaust the girls," Matthews says. "It's to enhance their skills and show them and their parents—especially the younger girls' parents—how easy the drills are and what they can take home or practice during free time. Our goal is to show them drills they can do in the backyard with their moms and dads."

To make sure the skills reviewed are appropriate for the student-athletes, Matthews divides the clinic into two groups: seven to 12 year-olds get the morning session and 13 to 18 year-olds have the mid-morning session. Each group is limited to 30 players. "From my experience, when you have 50 or so kids, the girls lose focus and the coaches can't pay as close attention as they would like," notes Matthews.

The biggest challenge for his coaching staff, though, is breaking bad habits. "At the younger level, we're showing them the basics: 'This is how you should throw a ball. This is how you should hold a bat to make contact with the ball.'" Matthews says. "In the second group we apply more technique based on the individual girls' physical maturity."

Time of year. Because the clinics emphasize off-season skill enhancement, the fall clinic takes place in November, shortly before most schools in the area begin their winter softball conditioning sessions. The summer clinic takes place immediately following the end of the school year. "The summer travel leagues begin their schedules at the end of June, and we don't want to take the girls away from that," Matthews says. "They can go to the clinic, then apply what they learn during league play."

Facility use. When it comes to showing the student-athletes specific skill sets, Matthews uses the clinics' facilities to his advantage. For instance, the fall clinic is held in Amherst Steele's high school gymnasium, which is better suited for hitting and running drills and infield play situations.

On the other hand, position play and fielding drills receive more focus during the summer clinic, which takes place on a renovated softball field a short distance from the high school. The field, Sliman's Diamond, was a donation by the father of one of the Comets who owns a car dealership adjacent to the outfield. The grounds are well maintained by the dealership, says Matthews, making it easier for the coaching staff to set up the field for clinic use.

Communication. Matthews uses his resources at the state softball association, the local media, and former Comets—such as Christina Swierz, who now pitches for Cleveland State University and infielder Alyssa Kushinski, who plays for the University of Findlay—to spread news of the clinic and enhance its appeal.

"I've been a coach since 1985, which means I have a lot of former players," he says. "After my coaching staff and I pick a date, we contact some of these players to see if they want to participate. Having the players come back makes the younger girls feel more comfortable. The girls are more willing to talk to the women and listen to what they've gone through and the advice they offer. The girls learn by example, and their examples are right in front of them."

When it comes to registration ($25 per participant), Matthews contacts his colleagues at the OHSFSCA through e-mail to see if their student-athletes are interested in participating. The e-mail consists of a simple letter explaining the event, the drills covered, and the goals of the clinic. A downloadable brochure is attached in the message, which lists the assistant coaches and former athletes participating, skills reviewed, dates, session times, and rain date information, payment details, and a parent/guardian consent form to return. The brochure is highlighted on the softball team's Web site, and Matthews contacts various local newspapers to inform the surrounding suburbs of the event.

As for the scheduling of the clinics' events, the first day of each clinic is dedicated to fielding. The student-athletes are separated into a smaller-group format based on their position and work with one Comet assistant coach or alumna. The next day, the smaller groups rotate among Matthews and his assistants to review hitting instructions and practice real-game situations. Pitchers and catchers spend some of this time working one-on-one with an assistant.

Matthews approximates that 85 percent of clinic participants are student-athletes, and a small but significant number come from area school districts. "Over the last few years, we've gotten very positive feedback from neighboring coaches about how we set up our clinics and what their girls take back to their programs," he says.

He also notes the influence the clinics have on parents. "It feels a little odd," says Matthews, "but I'm having former players send their daughters to these clinics. Having already gone through our program, the parents know what to expect and that the simple skills we're teaching their daughters are the ones that helped the parents succeed in the sport."

True to his open-communication style of coaching, Matthews encourages many of the parents to participate in drills after dropping off their daughters at the clinic. "Even if it's having them feed balls into the pitching machine, parents are just as interested watching and learning as the girls," he says, adding that their interest is an extension of the community love of the sport.

"Softball is very much a part of this area's mindset," Matthews says. "When I started coaching, the sport was just taking off, and now, young women have so many opportunities even after graduating high school. The community keeps encouraging its growth, and we're happy to host these clinics as a way of thanking them for their support."

The profits raised from this year's clinics will cover the costs of field maintenance supplies, uniforms, and some team travel expenses, such as attending a regional tournament in Columbus later this year.

For more information about Amherst Steele's softball program, visit the team's Web site: is brought to you by a recognized and established name in the school athletics arena, MomentumMedia—publisher of Athletic Management, Coaching Management and Training & Conditioning magazines.