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The Cages in Gray opens up new training possibilities for softball athletes

The sport of softball is the fastest growing sport in the NCAA and Maine players are coming up to bat

GRAY, Maine — You might be surprised to learn that according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, softball is the fastest-growing college sport in the country. They already knew that at The Cages in Gray, the powerful crack of a bat punctuates practices.

When you hang around The Cages in Gray, you hear a lot of talk – about dirt. "It's an absolute game-changer. The teams down south, they do get a chance to play outside, that's why it was important for us to put that dirt pitching lane in – something to give them the pitchers and catchers to work out in the dirt like the players do down south," says Fred Wilcox. 

Biddeford Senior Chantelle Bouchard puts it this way. "It's awesome.  I personally never had a dirt pitching facility."

Pitching Coach Julie Roy knows dirt makes a difference. "Being a pitching coach we've really, I've really found that… we're lacking dirt indoors in Maine."

Now, thanks to The Cages, there's plenty of dirt indoors – and these players are taking advantage of it. The dirt pitching lanes – the only ones in the state - allow pitchers to perfect their technique – indoors – with the footing they're used to on the field.

"Pitchers, when we don't have dirt indoors, you pitch on the gym floor and it's unrealistic and habits happen that you have to get rid of once you get outside on the dirt," says Julie. "And now, we can avoid that. 100 percent."

Julie Roy is a pitching coach. Fred Wilcox and Travis Demmons are coaches and co-owners of the New England Elite Softball League. Together, the three recognized the need for this facility, a place for softball players to train year-round. They opened their doors last June.

Alongside the pitching lanes, the players are in the tunnels -- batting, fielding, working on their swing.

She adds, "We have athletes that come from Caribou, from Camden, Maine, we have athletes that come from New Hampshire to come up here."

Having access to an indoor facility for training --  is a game-changer.

"This is a huge deal," says Fred Wilcox. "We knew we had to open something like this up so they would have the opportunity to keep up with the rest of the country."

Many of these athletes play for their hometown high school and play for some of the teams fielded at The Cages. 

For Chantelle, it's made an enormous difference in her training. "I was so excited, I mean I was stoked. To have a new practice facility, just to be able to hit and come here whenever I can to practice, always having something available to me, I was so stoked." The work she puts in here, behind the plate, means better connections with her team on the field. "So, blocking, to transfers, to pitch calling, catching our pitchers, building relationships with our pitchers, which is the most important thing. We do a little bit of everything when we're practicing catching and doing our catching clinics," she adds. 

Sophomore Ella Nickerson, who plays outfield and third base for South Portland, finds the training helps keep her on her game. "Softball's really important to me and sometimes it's hard to get motivated when you're home alone – and it's easier to come to a facility like once a week a lot and get a lot of reps in with your team cuz it's fun to hang out with your team and get more motivated when you see people."

The pitches fly at a dizzying pace. Between the catching and the batting, …it was loud inside – really loud. These ladies are serious about their sport.

The Cages has only been open for about five months. With the popularity of softball on the rise, Fred says … they have other projects in mind. "Definitely, ah, we're not done. We're not finished with this. This isn't end result, there's gonna be more to come," says Fred. 

Julie sums it up this way. "Softball is up and coming. It's one of the fastest growing sports in the nation, if not the world. So really having a facility that's rooted and grounded for our female athletes, our softball players … softball is such a fast-paced and growing sport, and you know, Maine is – we're showing up for it. And we really feel like having that base - homebase for our female athletes – here – makes sense."

The Cages also offers a space they call "the Chill Room" – where athletes can relax, do some homework, take a break during their training time. The hope is to cater to the whole athlete – both academically and athletically.  If you would like to know more about The Cages, click here