By Jeff Nations
The noise coming out of the dugouts during a high school softball game earlier this season between county rivals Stonewall Jackson and Strasburg was pretty standard stuff -- praise for a "good eye," reminders to "be a two-strike hitter," and all the other familiar chatter.
There was no rhyme, no rhythm, no singing -- absolutely no chanting -- just the chatter.
Chanting, once such a familiar part of high school softball, appears to be heading the way of shorts and visors as -- at most -- rare sights and sounds fans might encounter at a game.
"I think it's just kind of started to die out," Stonewall Jackson coach Morgan Williams said. "I can remember when I was little and I went through it, we did that a lot. By the time I got to high school, it was slowly dying out. When I got to college, we were done."
Williams, the Generals' first-year coach, is just a year out of college after playing at Bridgewater and five years removed from her own prep playing days at Richmond's Varina High School.
It's not just Strasburg and Stonewall dropping the practice, either -- none of the area's high school teams have chanted with much consistency for at least a decade, although it still crops up from time to time.
Last year, Warren County's softball team liked to break out a quick "Masher Asher" chant for former Wildcats standout Ariel Asher. But full chants? No way.
"My kids don't chant," Warren County coach Justin Stock said. "I've kind of told them that I don't want them to ... my first couple years, they tried to do a couple of them. I told them you can cheer, but don't chant. As a coach, anything you do to annoy a team or rile them up, I don't want my team to do that."
Stock knows from experience how annoying those chants can be. He can still remember the cacophony caused by opposing teams when he coached junior varsity softball at Powhatan High School.
"I've actually coached against some teams that do it," Stock said. "It does drive you nuts. Poquoson had a dugout with a tin roof; they would bang on it and chant throughout the game.
"... It can be effective. I've found when other teams do it to my team, my team hates it."
Strasburg sophomore Lexi Schlag could still recite the chants she memorized in Little League, but she wouldn't even think about doing it during one of the Rams' games.
"Chanting gets old after awhile, the same ones all the time," Schlag said. "I don't know what happened to it, but we just yell for them instead."
Count Strasburg coach Suzanne Mathias among those who don't miss the chants.
"I hate it," Mathias said. "I like the chatter. You will run into teams that chant, but as far as us goes I discourage the chanting. I think it's all in how you're coached. My teams, we were never allowed to do it in high school or college."
For Mathias, the annoyance factor is calculated to distract an opposing team's pitcher during the game. In her 13 years as Strasburg's coach, she's never had one of her teams break into a chant aimed at rattling a pitcher.
"I want them to chatter and keep their teammates up, but I don't want the screaming and trying to be obnoxious to the other team," Mathias said. "I think that's not the best sportsmanship. People would disagree with me -- they would say its part of the game. But for me, when they're directing it at your pitcher, that's just not good sportsmanship."
Skyline coach Frank Nelson isn't sure why the practice has largely died out in high school, but he has no fond memories of clever chants.
"They seem to do them more in travel ball," Nelson said. "They don't seem to do it more in high school for whatever reason, I don't know. Maybe we're more professional, I really don't know. I know in travel ball they do all that.
"Really good pitchers it doesn't seem to bother. That's what you're trying to do -- get the pitcher a little bit to start thinking. Really good pitchers, it doesn't bother."
Williams wants her team focused on the game, not on their next line.
"I kind of feel like, to a certain extent, you're thinking about what cheer comes next instead of, 'How many outs do we have,' and 'Who's on and am I coming up next?,'" Williams said. "I think chattering helps them stay more in focus with what's coming up."
Stock has his own reasons for his anti-chant stance -- the constant noise affects his ability to talk to his players on the field, for one thing.
"Mostly, I kind of find it corny," Stock said. "As a coach, I like to communicate with as many people as possible. It hurts our opportunity to communicate what we want to do."
Stock isn't completely against the old traditions, though. He'd love to see the visor make a comeback in softball.
"Most of my kids don't wear visors, and I wish more did," Stock said. "I'm kind of fighting a losing battle with that one."
Mathias still occasionally runs into opposing teams who chant a bit, but the Rams won't be one of them while she's coaching the team. During her playing days, Mathias was on teams that didn't allow chanting even when it was much more popular in the sport.
"We talked to our teammates and kept them up in the dugout, but as far as screaming all their little words that they say, the high-pitched 'Hit the birdie,' 'Kill the worm,' and all that, I just don't see any need in it," she said.
Schlag is fully in agreement with her coach on that point.
"I guess we grew out of it," Schlag said.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>