WASHINGTON — Young high school athletes face a myriad of new challenges leaving the middle school sports scene and moving to high school athletics.
Just the move to the freshman level, then the junior varsity is quite a challenge. To play at the varsity level as an underclassmen at such a young age is something very few can do.
Molly Sparks, who experienced those challenges, was an assistant coach for the Demons this season after graduating from Washington High School in 2019.
Sparks attended the University of Iowa to study premedicine and major in biology after she graduated. She decided to not play softball in college due to having major back surgery last year.
“I was very grateful to play my senior year, but I was ready to start a new chapter of my life,” she said.
One of the previous chapters had her playing varsity as an eighth-grader. They are allowed to play for their high school softball teams the summer before entering ninth grade.
She was a full-time varsity athlete from her freshman season until her senior season. One gains a lot of experience during all of those innings on the field.
“It is hard to watch and not being able to play,” Sparks said about coaching during games this season. “This is my first year not playing year-round softball or school ball and it feels weird, but I really love my new role on the team as a coach.”
Sparks was able to share her experiences with young Demon athletes this summer as she moved from the field to the dugout.
“I decided to help out the team this year because I wanted to share my passion of softball and give back to my community,” Sparks said. “I enjoyed playing the game and I am so excited to be able to share my knowledge with the younger girls.”
Sparks became the Head Freshmen Coach and the Assistant Junior Varsity Coach with the Demon softball team under Head Coach Ben Obermann.
“It is a huge plus to have a former player on staff,” Obermann said. “It was a smooth transition for her.”
This past winter, Washington’s former head JV coach moved into a varsity volunteer coaching role with the Demons, so that opened up a coaching position. Jacayla Litwiller moved up to take the head JV job, which left the Demons in need.
“One of the first names I thought of for this job was Molly Sparks,” Obermann said. “Her experience and success as a pitcher is invaluable. She sees things that I do not see from a pitching standpoint.”
Once Sparks agreed to coach with the Demons, she went through the courses to get her coaching endorsement, making Obermann very happy.
“I knew, if she was interested, she would be a great addition to our coaching staff. Her knowledge and love of the game of softball, coupled with her competitive drive, makes her a strong coach.”
It also helped that Sparks had been embedded in the program for so long.
“She has great knowledge of how our drills are taught and run,” Obermann said. “She knows how we do things as a program and how we teach our specific mechanics and fundamentals.”
Fundamentals are crucial in the development of young athletes.
Sparks pitched in four games for a total of eight innings as an eighth-grader. Her freshman year she had a 7-10 record in 108 innings pitched. She struck out 56 batters and walked 46. Her earned run average was 4.52. The innings pitched were up to 153 in her sophomore year and the ERA was down to 3.15. She had 82 strikeouts with 27 walks and her record was 15-8 that season. By her senior year. the walks were down to 12, strikeouts were at 64 and the ERA was under 2.0.
“First and foremost, during her time as a player, Molly was an outstanding competitor, who always wanted to be in the big moments,” Obermann said. “It is a great advantage for us, and especially for our younger pitchers, to have someone like Molly to help teach them how to pitch and learn different spins and pitches.”
Sparks had to be resilient during her career, which made her extremely tough, both mentally and physically.
“She is an amazing resource to have,” Obermann said. “During games, her ability to quickly fix some of our pitchers’ mechanics to get them back in control is a great attribute of Molly’s.”
“The hardest thing about coaching is trying to adapt to not being the one playing,” Sparks said. “The easiest thing about coaching would have to be getting along with the girls. I was nervous coming into this season and coaching girls who I’ve played with in the past, but everyone was super welcoming.”
The success the Demons had this season of making it to a regional final is something Sparks never experienced as a player, but it did not stir a desire in her to still be playing.
“No not really, I was really excited to see the girls make it to substate since we haven’t been able to accomplish that in six years. It was awesome to watch these girls put everything together and make it past the second round.”
There were mountains and valleys in her first year as a coach.
“The highest point in the season for me was being able to help girls improve their softball skills,” Sparks said. “For the freshman team, our highest point would be winning our last doubleheader of the season against Clear Creek-Amana. We really played well as a team.”
One thing that was the hardest for Sparks was something that didn’t have to do with coaching, but it is something coaches have for a responsibility.
“The least fun part of coaching would have to be chalking the field,” Sparks said. “I am terrible at it.”
She did have a lot of enjoyment helping girls hone their skills and develop confidence in themselves.
“I think she’s had a lot of fun doing it, and it’s a lot of fun to have her along for the ride,” Obermann said.
As far as making coaching a career, there will be plenty of time to debate that with herself.
“I’m not sure if I will be going into coaching with my career path, but I am considering it,” Sparks said.