Ally Barefield, shown here with the protective mask she wears as a first baseman at Starkville High, has helped make fast-pitch softball a safer sport in Mississippi.

What you first need to know about fast-pitch softball: The sport’s name is a misnomer. That ball is not soft – not at all. If a hard-hit or hard-thrown softball hits you in the face, it really, really hurts. You will bleed. The ball’s stitches might leave a lasting scar, even if you don’t need the other kind of stitches to close the wound. If it hits you in the nose, your nose likely will break. If it hits you in the jaw, it might break. And if it hits you in the eye?

Let’s not go there.

Rick Cleveland

Ally Barefield, a Starkville High softball first baseman, knows all this. Ally knows the inherent dangers well. She’s seen what can happen. And she also knows that pitchers and corner infielders face the most danger. They are often so close to the plate, they have scant time to react to a hard-hit ball.

So, Ally, then 16 years young, came up with a plan.

This would be her Girl Scouts project to qualify for the Gold Award, the most prestigious the organization gives and the equivalent of Eagle Scout for boys. She would make a proposal to the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA), the governing body for public school athletics in the state, to require pitchers, first basemen and third basemen to wear a protective mask.

Ally Barefield, sans face mask.

“Last season at practice, one of my teammates got hit with a ball in practice,” Ally said. “She was playing first base and wasn’t wearing a face mask. It was scary. They had to bring out an ambulance and take her off. Doctors said it hit about an inch below her temple. An inch higher, it could even have killed her.”

Thankfully, there was no lasting damage for her teammate, but there was certainly a lasting image for Ally Barefield, whose mother had required her to wear a mask from the time she began playing.

For the Gold Award, Girls Scouts requires a seven-step project: 1) choose an issue, 2) investigate, 3) seek help from an adult (a mentor), 4) create a plan, 5) present your plan, 6) take action, and 7) educate and inspire.

Ally checked all the boxes. She knew her issue. She investigated how other states handle it (not well) and surveyed Mississippi softball coaches to see how they felt about it. She also investigated the incidence of softball head injuries. She presented her plan to the MHSAA at both the district and state levels, a first for a Mississippi student-athlete. She suggested the action they should take: require pitchers and first and third basemen to wear a face mask. The proposal speaks for itself.

Ally Barefield and her coach, Ronald Campbell.

Starkville nurse practitioner Dana Brooks, the mother of a teammate, served as her mentor. Already, Brooks required her daughter to wear a face mask when playing any infield position. Starkville fast-pitch coach Ronald Campbell and athletic director Cheyenne Trussell were willing allies.

Campbell has coached fast-pitch for five years and seen what can happen. “We’ve had some close calls and near misses,” he said. “So I was all for it. It just makes sense: anything to make the game safer for out students makes sense.”

And there was this: Years ago, playing third base in slow-pitch softball, Campbell was hit by a bad-hop ground ball in his jaw. “Broke it in two places,” he said.

Campbell has a daughter who plays second base, not first or third. He makes her wear a mask. He believes all infielders should be required to wear a mask.

“In fast-pitch, things really happen fast, and the short game, the bunting, the slap-hitting are so much a part of it,” Campbell said. “The first and third basemen come up to play for the bunt and are no more than 25 feet away from the plate, and then the batter swings away. It’s scary.”

Campbell provided the MHSAA coaching directory, which Ally used to survey every fast-pitch coach in the state. She learned that 80 percent would support the rule she was proposing.

Don Hinton

Ally, an honors student with a GPA above 4.o, had to make her proposal twice, first at the district level in Louisville and again at the state level at MHSAA offices in Clinton. MHSAA executive director Don Hinton was present for both.

“She did an amazing job,” Hinton said. “She had done her homework. Her research was thorough. She made her points. Now, I will say she seemed a little nervous the first time.”

A little? No, a lot. “I had never spoken before an audience of adult strangers before,” she said. “It was nerve wracking, intimidating.”

But she got through it and her proposal passed at the district level unanimously.

Then came the state meeting – and a much more confident Ally Barefield.

“At the state level, she was like a pro,” Hinton said. “If she was nervous, you couldn’t tell it. It was really cool to watch.”

She clearly made an impression. Ally’s proposal passed at the state level, nearly unanimously, 35 to 1. It is now MHSAA law.

So now Mississippi will be the first state to require the four most dangerous positions (including catcher) to wear face masks.

“It’s a good rule,” Hinton says. “I think you’ll see other states do the same.”

Wednesday was Ally Barefield’s 17th birthday. Thursday was her last day in the 11th grade, a school year during which she accomplished something no other Mississippi high schooler ever has. And, yes, she did get her Girls Scouts Gold Award.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.