Monmouth Rockets really take off
9:02am Thursday 16th January 2014 in Sport
A SCHOOL sports team have really taken off - quite literally.
Monmouth Rockets softball team have been promoted to the next division of a city-based senior league after topping their table, just three years after launching.
And with seven team members currently in Great Britain's junior fastpitch pools, the sports' UK governing body has highlighted the Monmouth School and Haberdashers' Monmouth School for Girls co-ed club as one of softball's big success stories.
Rockets commander is Monmouth School physics teacher Gareth Dunn who started the team in 2011 and says his future mission is "to make the side a production line for GB talent".
"I used to work for an oil company full of Americans in London, and I went along to Hyde Park to watch them play softball, had a go at pitching and found I was quite good at it, so joined them," he says.
"When I came to Monmouth for interview, I said I wanted to start a softball team if I got the job, and after a few false starts, got one up and running.
"But I said at the start, we train all year round, and that's why we've been successful competing against adults. We've trained in minus 6C conditions, and it's a testament to the youngsters that they work hard."
Without any junior opposition locally, the school applied to join the senior Cardiff league in 2012, but were told "we don't take U16s".
The Bristol mixed league were more accommodating, and the 10-player team, which has to include at least five girls, travels over the Severn Bridge for 14 games a season, winning 12 games to top division three last season and win promotion.
"We have to leave at 4pm to play, getting back at 10pm, but the kids love it and their enthusiasm drives the club," adds Gareth.
Similar to baseball, softball has underarm pitching with a bigger ball on a smaller diamond and seven innings.
"It's attraction is that it's a more offensive game as you can hit the ball more," says Gareth. "Obviously, we come up against big guys who can whack the ball miles, but our better skills pull us through."
The team got itself noticed at the end of the 2012 season at the Festiball tournament in Edinburgh, where they won more than half their games, and returned in 2013 as well as playing major tournaments in Stroud and Birmingham
Four boys were selected for GB for the recent European U19 boys championships in Denmark after national coach Stan Doney handled training sessions in Monmouth. Sadly Tom Price was ruled out with a cracked wrist, but Amit Aswani, Ieuan Gale and Robert Mosley all made the trip.
And last month, GB U16 Girls' head coach Jeremy Thomas ran an all-day training session in Monmouth, and Haberdashers' girls Katie Schofield and Alys Thomas were invited to join the girls' team national pool, joining U19 GB squad member Emma Hart.
“It's been immensely rewarding,” Gareth said. “I never imagined we'd have this sort of success when we started out. Now I want to take it as far as we can.
"Some kids who weren't particularly successful at other sports have found they can be at softball. They kind of like the fact that it's rare and they can play in tournaments and play against adults.
“And because it's mixed,” Gareth said, “it's a more pleasant team dynamic than it would be with just a bunch of guys. It's not so full of testosterone. But it can be tough - being hit by a fast pitched ball or someone sliding in and taking your legs out isn't easy."
And Gareth is now pitching for a grant from the Welsh Sports Council to buy a pitching machine, which can deliver the ball at up to 100mph.
"Most of the leagues are what we call softpitch, where the ball is delivered from a height and over a bigger distance, but all GB's competitions are fastpitch, so we need a machine to prepare for that level," he explains.
The British Softball Association has praised the Rockets to the skies, saying "a great foundation has been built at the school, and the hopes are that the club can use its achievements to grow and develop into a school institution".
Their article on the team can be viewed at www.britishsoftball.org/news