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Concussions, Broken Noses – In Softball? Here Comes The Face Mask

Lauren Silverman
Kylee Fowler.

It’s state softball playoff season, and some girls are gearing up with face masks.

Softball is one of the safest high school sports in Texas. But serious injuries do happen – especially at positions like third base or pitcher, where screaming line drives can do major damage. At least one North Texas school district, Richardson, is requiring all girls who play third to wear face masks in the field.

Last December, Ferris ISD senior Didi Duran took a softball to the forehead.

“I didn’t think she was going to hit it as hard as she did,” Didi recalls.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Denise "Didi" Duran is a senior at Ferris ISD. Last December she was hit in the forehead while playing third baseman.

“I guess I got too close, I brought my glove up and thought I was gonna catch it but it hit me in the head.”

The ambulance took Didi to a hospital. Her mom, Lisa Duran, says Didi didn’t remember anything, and for months afterwards had trouble just making her way down the stairs from her bedroom.

“She fell a couple of times just from being dizzy, the school had to watch her and we watched her, but she was down for a good three months with a concussion.”

The Face Mask

Every year, more than two million girls between the ages of 12 and 18 play fast pitch softball. Like any sport, there are your standard injuries, pulled muscles, ankle sprains, but there’s also what happens when a ball going fifty miles an hour makes contact with a nose or an ear or an eye. Of all softball injuries last school year, 17.2% were head and face injuries.

That’s why Ferris coach Jock Eusey encourages everyone to wear a face mask

“I don’t think a lot of girls are playing at the select level anymore because it’s so expensive,” Ferris says. “So you got a lot of kids in high school ball against kids, girl playing 3rd base that maybe plays a couple months out of the year and their getting line drives hit at them and reaction time isn’t what it needs to be. It’s getting dangerous…the kids are getting bigger and stronger…”

Since 2006, high school players have been required to have a face mask on their batting helmet, but there are no state or national requirements for infielders.

Both the Ferris 3rd baseman and pitcher choose to wear black face masks during games.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Leah Yarborough, the pitcher for Ferris ISD, warms up before a game. When she goes onto the pitcher's mound, she'll be wearing a face mask.

“I wear it every time I go out on the field, just ‘cause you never know what can happen,” says Leah Yarborough, who has been pitching since she was nine.

“People say that it distracts you and it’s just going to block your vision, but the one I have is over your eyes just a bar over your cheekbone. Nothing that distracts you,” she says.

Not all the Ferris ISD softball players are convinced. Didi Duran, the third baseman who was out for months after a ball slammed into her forehead refuses to put on a mask in the infield.

“I just don’t like it, It gets in my way,” she says. “The way I play is that go hard or go home, so if I’m going to get hit in the face I’m meant to get hit in the face.”

Where The Mask Is Mandatory

At high schools in Richardson ISD, face masks for third basemen and first baseman are not . At JJ Pearce, the coach requires every infielder wear a mask, says Richardson athletic director Bob Dubey.

“We had some scenarios where we had some facial lacerations,” Dubey says, “where the balls were coming off the bats pretty hard, we just wanted to make sure the kids were safe.”

Dubey says since the face mask rule, they haven’t had any significant face injuries.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News

A National Debate

Whether rules on face masks for softball change across Texas is up to the National Federation of State High School Associations, which reviews requests from coaches across the U.S. each June. They base their decisions on medical data, collected by people like Dr. Dawn Comstock.

For nearly a decade, Comstock has gathered data on injuries in twenty high school sports – including softball, for The National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study.

Comstock says whether face masks should be required is a tough call.

“Pitchers and third baseman do sustain injuries such as concussions, broken noses, knocked out teeth,” she says. “A helmet with a full face shield would prevent the vast majority of those injuries. Now, do they sustain them at high enough rate to justify making that a mandated piece of protection equipment? That’s not for me to decide.”

Ferris coach Eusay thinks the masks should be required for pitchers and third basemen. He’s submitted a request for his athletic director to pass along to the UIL, which is the liaison between Texas softball teams and the National Federation of State High School Associations.

For now at least, the face mask will remain a personal decision.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.