Norristown first base Stephanie Orman catches the ball at first to force out the runner from Upper Merion. Thursday, April 24, 2014. Photo by Adrianna
Norristown first base Stephanie Orman catches the ball at first to force out the runner from Upper Merion. Thursday, April 24, 2014. Photo by Adrianna Hoff/Times Herald Staff. (A Hoff)

WEST NORRITON — If you can count to 13 you have just tallied up the Norristown High softball program.

That's it, 13 players, that's the entire high school program.

No junior varsity team, no freshman team.

Thirteen names that constitute the complete Eagles softball program.

Thus, the softball team can now be added to the long litany of Norristown athletic programs that suddenly seem to have the same appeal to potential student-athletes as a month's worth of in-school suspension.

It's almost as if there were a school-wide plot to avoid the athletic fields. And no one, least of all head softball coach Jim McCarthy, has any answers.

Norristown’s short stop Rachel Rosetti throws home during the game against Upper Merion. Thursday, April 24, 2014. Photo by Adrianna Hoff/Times
Norristown's short stop Rachel Rosetti throws home during the game against Upper Merion. Thursday, April 24, 2014. Photo by Adrianna Hoff/Times Herald Staff. (A Hoff)

Theories? He's heard a few, as have most of the high school's coaching staffs. He's heard the one where the potential team members all have to work after school, and even the one where, through the social media, the potential football players, field hockey players and yes, even softball players are being dissuaded from participation in athletic activities by those students that would be considered leaders, if any of them were leading anything other than a revolt against after-school activities.

But the only thing McCarthy has heard that makes the most sense is silence, like when he's phoned those softball players that suddenly have stopped showing up for practice.

"When I've called them, the typical response has been, ' I don't feel like playing anymore,'' the coach said. "I've been coaching sports at the high school level for 32 years, and all of that time I've only had one rule — be at practice. And it just started last year, kids weren't coming to practice.'

It's not as if certain sports have been targeted. Potential participants haven't suddenly decided to ignore the baseball team or the soccer team or the tennis team. And the success or failure of a particular Norristown sports program doesn't seem to enter into this "boycott.'

McCarthy's softball teams have consistently been among the school's top programs, having won four Suburban One League titles while qualifying for district play on a regular basis.

In fact, just last season the Norristown softball team was 11-4, and missed the postseason primarily because the District One softball playoff field was whittled down from 32 to 22 teams, and only league champ Upper Merion earned a postseason berth.

And when this year's potential softball team first began assembling in February, there were 28 players interested.

But slowly, almost methodically, the players stopped showing up.

"Some of the players went over to lacrosse, some found other things to do,' McCarthy said. "Over the past 20 years we probably have had the third most successful program at the high school, behind (boys) basketball and wrestling. But as the weeks went by, the kids stopped showing up.

"We're trying to keep kids in the program. Through some budget cuts over the past five years or so, we've lost some teams in seventh and eighth grades, but not enough to bring about something like this.'

Making McCarthy's season even more difficult is an as yet undiagnosed illness that has kept him inactive since November. He contracted pneumonia in November and then again in March. All he knows for the time being is that one of his lungs is not functioning properly. So the long-time coach has had to endure the erosion of his program from a distance, making daily phone calls to assistant coach Stephanie McCormick.

After enduring a 12-0 loss to Upper Merion Thursday, McCormick said it's been one of those nightmare seasons that no one saw coming.

"We're down to 10 healthy bodies right now,' McCormick said. "Our starting left fielder got hurt today. But the girls who are here are pulling through it. They have a lot of heart.

"The girls who are here want to be here.'

Another puzzling factor in Norristown's dip in athletic participation is the large number of the senior class that has decided it has better things to do than play sports. This plague has infected the softball team as well.

"We had two seniors come out,' McCarthy said. "One had injuries that forced her to stop playing. The other had some family issues and had to work. So she stopped playing.

"I can't understand why a student-athlete would give up their senior year. They only get one.' For now the team, with only one victory to its credit, can only take its lumps and hope that better days are ahead.

Ironically, at the start of the season, the coaches felt this year could be the beginning of better days. Now, the hope is that somehow interest will return to Norristown sports in general and softball in particular.

"It's disappointing, it's frustrating,' McCarthy said. "We've never lacked numbers. Where have all the athletes gone? That's the question.

"We had 11 players on varsity last year and 16 on J.V. And now there's 13 in the entire program.

"It makes you sick.'