By Steve Williams

Caswell Park has been the launching pad for some good high school softball teams.

That’s where the “middle school” varsity division of the Knoxville Parks and Recreation’s girls 14-under fast-pitch league is played and going strong. Some of its past teams have gone on to have success at the TSSAA state tournament level.

Hardin Valley Academy’s Whitney Cruze is one of several high school head coaches who coaches in the middle school fall league, which got underway last week.

“You can start coaching the kids you’re going to have in high school,” said Cruze. “I think it’s a great opportunity to build your program.”

The league, which includes 16 varsity division teams and seven junior varsity teams, is run by the Parks and Recreation Department. Approximately 300 girls are involved

The Knox County school system does not sanction softball like it does basketball, but the KPRD tries to “mirror” the softball league with KCS, with the girls playing where they go to school, said Nathan Nease, athletics coordinator.

“I started coaching in the middle school league six years ago when Hardin Valley Academy was just starting,” said Cruze, “and the past two or three years we have started to see the fruits of our labor in high school.”

Cruze, whose 2015 HVA team advanced to the state tourney, has now coached seniors for six years, starting with them when they were seventh graders.

“This middle school league is good for the area and it’s good for softball,” added Cruze. “Georgia has been doing this for a long time, so Tennessee is kind of playing catch-up. I think it’s great. As long as it keeps going, I think there are a lot of coaches going to do what I’m doing.”

Longtime Gibbs High coach Carol Mitchell, along with former Halls High coach George Hall, started the middle school league in 2004 at Willow Creek.

“The school systems in Nashville and Chattanooga had middle school softball at that time,” recalled Mitchell, who continues to coach Gibbs in the current league at Caswell Park. “We felt our programs were at a disadvantage, so we decided to start the league.”

Mitchell’s Lady Eagles won the school’s 10th state title this past spring, defeating Powell in the Class AAA finals. “Of the 18 players that travelled to the state, 15 played for me at Holston Middle,” said Mitchell.

Other high school coaches that are coaching in the middle school league this year include Halls’ Brian Gordon, Karns’ Leah Dailey, Powell’s Wesley Trotterchaud, Jefferson County’s Hillary Howard and Oak Ridge’s Judy Siebert.

Some of the teams have parent volunteer coaches.

“Most people – the girls and coaches – seem to enjoy the league,” said Nease. “Coaches really like it because it gives them an opportunity to build their high school team for the future. And I think the kids enjoy it just as much from the competitive standpoint.”

Varsity division games are played at Caswell Park and junior varsity games at Tyson Park. Each team will play an eight-game regular season schedule and there will be a post-season double-elimination tournament.

Varsity teams in the league are Anderson County Mavericks, Bearden, Farragut, Gibbs, Gresham Gladiators, Halls, Hardin Valley Lady Hawks, Jefferson County, Karns, Lady Hornets, Northwest, Oak Ridge Junior Wildcats, Powell, Seymour Eagles, South-Doyle and Union County.

Bearden, Farragut, Gibbs, Halls, Hardin Valley, Northwest and Powell also have JV teams.