JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — During public hearing at the Sept. 13 City Council meeting, more than 20 residents asked the mayor and council to bring back a recreational softball league to Johns Creek parks.
Speakers included players from Northview and Chattahoochee high school teams, their coaches and parents.
The teams had just finished their senior night games. Coaches said their seniors included the last crop of girls who participated in Ocee Park recreational softball before it was discontinued in 2013.
Recreation Manager Kirk Franz said that after the program left Ocee, it moved to Newtown Park from 2014 to spring 2019. Both times it was discontinued, Franz said, it was in part due to low registration.
At the City Council meeting, attendees said that without new players joining the sport each year at the elementary school level, the high school teams are struggling to stay afloat.
“Our pipeline is drying up,” Chattahoochee High School softball head coach Jeff Aiken said. “When I first started coaching in 2007, we had 31 girls between the [junior varsity team] and the varsity. Right now, we have 14 girls, that’s it.”
Without the recreational league, girls interested in playing softball have had to travel to surrounding municipalities and pay additional fees. Girls who may have been interested in softball, Aiken said, were either never exposed to the sport, or it was made to be cost prohibitive.
In 2016, the Johns Creek and Alpharetta city councils both approved a “Parks Without Borders” program which waives non-resident participation fees for residents of either city. Outside of Alpharetta, however, Johns Creek residents can face staunch fees for entry.
Between Newtown, Ocee and Shakerag parks, Johns Creek has 13 softball/baseball fields, but only provides baseball programming.
Resident and softball father Damon Joshua argued against the inequality calling it an opportunity issue.
“When I look at the facilities that we have, they’re fantastic,” Joshua said. “We have the best facilities in this part of the state, but we don’t have them for our girls. They’re not equal. So, what we’re really saying is: we need to raise the bar, we need to raise our standard for the 50 percent, so that they have the same opportunities that we have as men.”
Chattahoochee freshman and seven-year softball player Kya Walker spoke about what the sport has taught her over the years.
“It is so imperative for us to have a recreational [league] here so that girls can experience the same things that I did, and learn the same things I did,” Walker said. “Learn things like how to be a leader, how to lead on and off the field, how to deal with people of all different personalities and how to learn from failure and go forth with it.”
Other girls spoke of the confidence softball has given them, how passionate they are about the sport and how they want to share that with other girls.
Fathers spoke of how their daughters had grown through the sport, how they wouldn’t be who they are today without it.
“I grew up playing baseball,” Walker’s father Jonathan Walker said. “I bled baseball until my wife and I were blessed with this young lady over here, and now I bleed softball.”
He went on to say that this isn’t a popularity issue, the interest in softball is there, but Johns Creek residents are missing out, Walker said.
Northview High School softball player Nora Daklouche asked the city to do better for its girls.
“This is our future, and other young ladies’ future, and I just know I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t play softball,” Daklouche said. “It’s taught us how to work for what we want and work so hard. … This is our future and I believe you should do better.”
After nearly an hour of public comment, Mayor Mike Bodker thanked all speakers for, “helping us understand and appreciate more about youth softball in Johns Creek.”
City Councilwoman Stephanie Endres, who has two daughters who play softball, then stood up and committed to bring softball back to Johns Creek. She said the budget would pass that evening anyway, but that she would work with the coaches and the teams to make an amendment which would fund youth softball.
Endres received a standing ovation.
Following public comment, the council began budget discussions for the 2022 fiscal year. Councilman Lenny Zaprowski proposed an amendment to dedicate an additional $120,000 to Recreation and Parks improvements, focused on K-5 programming.
Zaprowski cited the hearing as partially responsible for his amendment.
“We heard a definite need tonight from our community that we need some K-5 programs,” Zaprowski said. “I think this gives staff the opportunity to immediately start addressing that rather than wait any longer.”
Endres countered that the amendment needed more consideration.
“Being a parent in this particular sport, and knowing what’s needed, this is premature,” Endres said. “You’re allocating a certain dollar amount assuming that one person is going to solve what they were talking about.”
Endres continued and said she was disappointed that Zaprowski didn’t send out the amendment sooner, calling it ill-defined, ill-prepared and self-serving.
“With all due respect,” Zaprowski countered, “I never said this was going to solve the problem, but it’s going to start.”
Zaprowski’s amendment was eventually adopted into the fiscal year 2022 budget. Endres made up the only nay vote on the final budget.