BROOKSVILLE — "I don't know where softball went."
At first, Brooksville Recreation Department employee Tina Nichols' words seemed trivial. At a second glance, there are only five sanctioned women's softball teams in Florida. Four reside in the Recreation Department's new Women's Softball League.
Adult recreational sports have been a staple in Brooksville for years, led by the presence of both men's and co-ed softball leagues — 25 teams this year.
Last season, female players in the co-ed league began to ask Nichols why the men had an option to play in a league just for them while women had no such choice.
"When you are playing with men, they tend to lay back and not play their hardest," former co-ed player Evelyn Lehman said. "The women like going out there and playing against each other."
Nichols began to look into starting a women's league, and the word spread. In its inaugural season, the league has four teams that play on Wednesday nights on the fields outside the Jerome Brown Community Center. Three of the teams play doubleheaders each night, loving every minute of it.
"I've heard so many times at the end of the night, 'That umpire made such a bad call, but it's okay because I had so much fun,' " Lehman said. "It's been three weeks so far, and these girls are having a great time."
With Nichols already assigned to so many duties, Lehman was more than happy to take the reins as director of the league. Among her tasks: establishing the schedule, collecting the registration paperwork and fees, and contacting the players with any scheduling issues. Because of her experience in running leagues, Nichols has been happy to help.
"Running all of these leagues is a lot of work," Nichols said. "Evelyn had never run a league before, but she has picked it up really fast and done a terrific job with it."
There are currently more than 50 players in the league, with 12 to 15 on each club, and the league welcomes more, Lehman said. Sponsors include Beef O'Brady's, Creative Environmental Solutions, Sandy's Floralscape and Lawn Maintenance and Daddy DJ.
The biggest surprise is the size of the league, because there are no others in the state, according to Mike Miller of the National Softball Association.
The fifth team in Florida is a national travel team out of Miami that competes against out-of-state opponents. There are four other sanctioning bodies for softball recognized in the United States, but the Amateur Softball Association, United States Slo-Pitch Softball Association, Independent Softball Association and World Softball League all have little or no participation from women.
"There isn't even a state women's softball tournament, even though it's been tried, because there aren't enough sanctioned teams," Miller said. "Tina took the initiative to start the league (in Hernando County), and it's a nice setup for her."
Miller handles all of the sanctioning paperwork, allowing every player who registers to be eligible to compete in any association tournament. He also organizes the umpires.
This is the first exclusively female league in the area since Pasco County had a league at Jack Mitchell Park in New Port Richey that disbanded three years ago.
That league, while successful and popular, was a victim of the economic times. Miller, who was involved in that league, remembers a group of Hernando County players making the almost hour-long trip down to Pasco to play every week.
The long drive "was another complaint that the women had," Miller said, "but they kept doing it until the league closed down. It's really nice to see someone give it another shot."
Maybe another opportunity is all that was needed. The reviews only a few weeks in are overwhelmingly positive as word of mouth spreads. With the rich history of softball in Hernando stretching back five decades, a women's league only seems fitting.
"Hopefully, women will hear about us in Citrus and Pasco counties," Nichols said. "I think we can get this started up again."