As a girl, Dawson County High School senior Kaitlynn Bennett tried a wide variety of sports and activities, ranging from tumbling to cheerleading to basketball, but it was when she discovered softball “at like the age of four” that she knew she had found her sport.
“Growing up, I had a cousin that played softball and I wanted to be like her, I guess,” Bennett said. “She played when she was young, so I did too.”
Sports specialization, defined by a summary study entitled Sports Specialization in Young Athletes published in May 2013 by the American Orthopaedic Society of Sports Medicine “as intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports,” is a growing trend in youth sports across the United States.
A 2011 study of 519 US Tennis Association junior tennis players found that 70% began specializing at an average age of 10.4 years old with that number increasing to almost 95% by the age of 18. Multiple studies have found this trend mirrored in a wide spectrum of sports with the biggest shifts taking place in basketball, softball, volleyball and hockey.
Since discovering the game, Bennett has played some form of organized softball every year of her life. Progressing from park and rec leagues into middle school ball and now playing year-round as she enters her final year of high school playing for both the Lady Tigers and an elite travel team, the Georgia Prime.
Based out of the Woodstock/Canton area, the Georgia Prime is a softball-only training organization with the “goal of making each young lady that joins our program the best overall person and player that they choose to be.”
“I wanted to focus on myself as a player. My strengths. My weaknesses,” Bennett said. “I felt that if I could focus on myself that I could be a better player and a better person.”
Try-outs are usually conducted in late July or early August each year, and the travel schedule begins immediately at the end of high school softball season in late October or early November. The team will squeeze in at least two tournaments before December, and then break for Christmas. Spring season, consisting of well-over two dozen games, kicks off with the new year and lasts until tournament season, which usually runs from April through the middle of July.
The long schedule means that Bennett is involved with a softball related activity almost every day of the year from the beginning of January through the end of November and, occasionally, there are conflicts in her routine.
“It’s a big commitment, you have to be there,” Bennett said. “Sometimes I will have a lot of schoolwork and I will have to take it on the road, or sometimes my friends will want to do something, and I will have to get back to them. I always do, and we have fun, but I definitely have to get back to them. It’s hard, but to me it’s worth it.”
“I like being on the field with my coaches and friends, with girls from all over,” Bennett said. “That’s kind of the unique thing about travel ball is meeting so many different people. It’s a neat experience.”
When asked if she had any regrets about dedicating so much time to softball, Bennett was quick with her one-word answer. “No.”
For parents Brannon and Bethany Bennett, the intense schedule created a mixture of challenges and blessings, with dad focusing on the athletic nature of the program and mom speaking about the educational opportunities that come along with the Prime program.
Travel ball is more competitive. You have more competition because you are playing teams from different areas. Not just in your region. And with the higher level of competition it tends to make the player a better player.” Brannon said. “Also, teams are smaller, 10-12 girls. So, the player gets more playing time which makes them better at their position as well as gives coach more opportunities to teach because there are less players than on a school team.”
“It’s pretty much year-round. It gives much more exposure to colleges,” Bethany said. “And, unless they have an ace player, not a lot of college scouts are at the local high school game. Her education is our number one focus.”
Both parents were quick to agree, that aside from the occasional social conflict, the biggest challenge associated with a traveling softball team was the cost. In addition to an up-front fee of 2000 dollars to cover team dues, uniforms, practice facilities (indoor and outdoor) and tournament fees, the family is responsible for all costs associated with travel, which Bethany estimated at roughly 1000 dollars.
“The team stays in north Georgia as much as possible,” Bethany said. “But if Kaitlynn’s putting it first then we are putting it first, plus we are together as a family. I enjoyed watching her doing something she enjoyed.”
Entering her final year as a Lady Tiger, Bennett looked forward to what the season would bring and felt that her combination of high school and travel experience had prepared her for taking on a leadership role with the team in 2019.
“We should be good this year,” Bennett said. “I’m very excited about being a leader on the team. It will give me a chance to mentor some of the younger girls.”
The Lady Tigers open the season with a home game versus the Denmark Danes on Aug. 3, at 1 p.m.