There’s a New Culture Around Oakcrest Softball
Now that the Oakcrest softball season is over, Falcons head coach Jason Hearn will probably have a lot more battery life on his phone. Then again, with as close as this team grew the past few months, perhaps not.
Oakcrest finished 12-10, took fourth place in a very tough Cape-Atlantic League National Conference, and earned a berth in the South Jersey Group 2 playoffs. But, more important than any on-field success enjoyed this spring, Hearn is trying to change the entire culture around Oakcrest softball — and, by the looks of things, he’s beginning to succeed.
“We’re trying to create that family atmosphere. We want the kids to know that we’re not just here for them from 2:30 to 5:30, we’re here for each other. We have a team group chat and it just never stops, I have to put the notifications on ‘do not disturb.’ They are always sending funny pictures, words of encouragement. And it’s not just one or two girls, it’s all of them, and that’s so good to see that these girls are invested in each other beyond softball,” said Hearn, who has been the Falcons’ skipper since 2012. “We have a really good core group of families that were so invested in getting our field where it needed to be. We had a family day where we were cleaning out the dugouts, cleaning the sheds, raking the field. We got together on a Saturday and had a barbecue. These families are invested in not only their child enjoying these things, but every child in the program.”
During some recent seasons, opposing teams could look at Oakcrest on their schedule and pencil in a win, relatively confident they could handle the Falcons. But this year the Falcons were a tough out for anybody in the CAL. They played tough against state playoff squads like Ocean City and Hammonton, scored big divisional wins against the likes of Absegami and Middle Township, and even beat Mainland, a team that won 20 games this season, in the season finale.
Little changes have led to big things beginning to happen for Oakcrest softball. Instead of spending money on preseason trips to Florida or South Carolina, the Falcons decided to continue fundraising so they could build up enough money to make some drastic improvements inside the program. This year, Oakcrest was able to put up permanent outfield fencing and the Falcons also got some nice new uniforms. These may sound like minimal upgrades, but the efforts have gone a long way, coach Hearn said.
“It’s been a few years since we’ve been able to invest in the girls, so it was really nice to get the opportunity to make some purchases that would help motivate the girls. The booster club decided to not go on some trips for a few years and instead put some money into upgrading the field. And not only has that helped the varsity with the permanent fence, but the JV now has our old breakaway fence. It’s a matter of creating more of a team atmosphere for the entire program. We wanted the girls who are in the program now to be more invested and for younger kids to see that there is a great opportunity to play here, and that there are people here who care about you, and want you to be successful and have a good time while you’re working hard within the program,” he said. “We had an influx of girls coming out for the team this year. Last year, the JV struggled with numbers, but this year we had more than enough. We had some girls who didn’t play as freshmen and sophomores come out as juniors. It’s the mindset that if you look good, you feel good and you’ll play well. Last year we were scrambling for pants that matched, kids were sewing rips in pants because it had been a few years since we had gotten uniforms. This year the girls were able to get some really sharp looking jerseys. We worked with Showcase Sports in Hammonton and they did a great favor by working us a wonderful deal that came in right where our budget allotted us to get us two sets of jerseys. The old jerseys were still in pretty good shape so we were able to give them to the JV players.
Added Hearn, “We’re doing a lot of things to help create that family atmosphere within the program, along with providing the girls with better uniforms and fields.”
“We have a great group of parents who are always willing to help, and a great booster club. We had a tournament in April and the weather was really bad. We had parents out there at 6:30 in the morning, bringing tarps, doing what they could to dry the field. We’ve been lucky with having great parents,” added assistant coach Lindsay Day, a former player for Hearn who graduated from Oakcrest in 2012. “We have a group of girls who play travel ball, and even the ones who don’t grew up playing softball. The bigger challenge has been getting everyone together as a whole team and learning how to play not just for yourself. In this day and age, with social media, it’s a lot about me, me, me, so getting the girls to want to play for the girl next to them, and the whole cliche of playing for the name on the front of the jersey and not the name on the back, that’s been one of our biggest challenges. But, toward the end of the season we really rallied. In our last game of the season, after we had gotten knocked out of the playoffs, we beat Mainland 2-1 on a go-ahead run in the seventh inning. So, at the end of the season they had really bought into the team ideal.”
Hearn and the booster club have been working with local companies to help with the upgrades, including Phencemen of Egg Harbor City and Showcase Sports in Hammonton.
“We were fortunate enough to have some businesses sponsor us and those banners will go up next year. We worked with a local company that provided us with banners at a great price, so that’s going to look great next year, and they’re going to work with families of players to come up with pictures of the players that we can put up on the outfield wall,” Hearn said. “They’ll be up for the whole season and then the families can take them, it’s just a way of promoting the girls who are playing.”
Hearn said that when the boxes filled with new Falcons jerseys arrived, the players couldn’t wait to get their hands on them and see how they looked. And it’s not just the excitement of having new apparel, but the fact that the girls worked so hard to raise all the money needed to not only look like a better team, but become a better program all around.
“When the jerseys came in, every one of the players lit up. When the guy from Showcase Sports pulled up and took the boxes out, I almost couldn’t get the jerseys out of the box before they were like, ‘where’s my number?’ They were so excited. And with the fence, we worked with Phencemen out of Egg Harbor City and in just over a week we were able to get it up, finalize it — when it all came down to it, when the fence was complete and we had our first home game, you could just see the excitement with the girls,” Hearn said. “Not only is it a permanent fence, but it gave the girls ownership of that little bit of land. In the past, you had other teams walking to their field, and when we had that breakaway fence people would be walking through the outfield — the fact that we have a little chunk of land that is ours, you could tell the girls are proud of what they accomplished. It’s through their fundraising the last couple of years that we were able to do these types of things. It wouldn’t have been possible without their hard work, so it was an opportunity to see their actions come to life. To raise money is one thing, but to see your money in action, you could tell they took a little bit more pride in that field — hustling down to practices and games because it’s something they were able to accomplish.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays