LaGRANGE — The hot sun radiating down on the diamond Tuesday evening at the Shuford Fields Softball Complex off Calumet Center Drive did little to diminish the enthusiasm of athletes with the Troup County Dingers.
The team, assembled for teens and adults with varying disabilities, was having too much fun fielding softballs, taking their turn at bat and listening to the advice and praise from their instructors.
On the playing field, the kids only know them as “Coach.” Off the diamond, the men have more formal titles. The Troup County Dingers are led by LaGrange Police Sgt. Marshall McCoy, LaGrange Police Officer Garrett Pressley and Troup County Fire Lt. Mike Williams.
At least once a week these first responders shed their uniforms for more comfortable clothes and get covered with sweat and dust from the Georgia red clay alongside their athletes.
“It’s a chance for them to see us outside of work in a different way … not just as law enforcement officers,” explained McCoy. “It’s a way for us to get away from the job and interact with kids and parents.”
The trio, alongside a number of volunteers from around the community, are preparing the athletes for the Georgia Special Olympics State Fall Games in October. The Dingers will compete against other teams in the softball competition.
“The first time I helped out I pitched to the kids,” explained Gracie Landis, 15, a student and softball player at Valley High School in Valley, Alabama. “I helped them with their swing and stood behind them to catch the ball. … I like softball and I like seeing them enjoy the same thing I do.”
“I like catching the softball, having my own mitt and going up to bat,” said Dingers player McKenzie Williams with a smile. “I also like running the bases really fast so no one can tag me out.”
The team practices every Tuesday evening, rotating around the field to try out each position and taking turns in the batter’s box.
“It’s a joy to see them be happy … to see them smile when they hit the ball and interact with each other,” Pressley said. ” … We don’t get to see that a lot at work. It’s the little things that make the difference.”
“These kids are like any other kids. They play soccer, golf, softball. … There’s as much excitement in their eyes as in anyone elses eyes. It’s not any different,” stated McCoy.
Though the stands surrounding the field may not be as full as the others, the family members there supporting the team cheer just as loud – if not louder – than the fans in the bleachers at surrounding games.
“Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh,” Brenda Macready suddenly yelled from the stands to her granddaughter, Kaitlynn. “Good girl! Way to go!
“That was one of her first hits (at bat),” she proudly said with a smile.
Family members said being apart of the softball team has made a positive impact on their athletes.
Andrew Burgos, 12, has played in the league for three years.
“He socializes a lot more,” said Andrew’s mom, Alma Burgos. “His speech is not that good. But when he plays sports his development and communication skills get better.”
The parents seem to enjoy practices almost as much as the athletes do and had nothing but praise for the first responders they also know as “Coach.”
“They’re good about teaching them how to catch the ball,” said Macready. “The players seem to do better with the coaches. They listen more. They can think on their own.”
“The players have wonderful coaches,” added June Langford, whose daughter Abigail Langford, 14, plays on the team. “They’re great. They’re like angels sent from heaven.”
The Troup County Dingers will head to the Special Olympics State Fall Games 2016 in Gainesville on Oct. 7.
Last year, the team took home a gold medal.
Melanie Ruberti is a reporter with LaGrange Daily News. She can be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2156.