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Like mother, like daughter: Sparks family making its mark in Hollidaysburg league

Youth baseball

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Macie Sparks-Zembower and her mother, Jill Sparks, coach Old Canal Inn in Hollidaysburg’s 50/70 league.

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Softball has been a constant in Macie Sparks-Zembower’s life.

From her start at 5 years old to playing for the Allegany College of Maryland’s Lady Trojans, the 24-year-old Hollidaysburg native has lived and breathed softball.

So, when her younger brother, Demari Wansley, 12, asked her to coach his Hollidaysburg Area Summer Baseball League team, Sparks-Zembower stepped up to the plate.

And with her mother, Jill Sparks, alongside as her assistant coach, Sparks-Zembower has brought her experience and a positive mindset from softball to baseball.

“The only thing that’s different is the velocity of the ball, and the way you release the ball,” Sparks-Zembower, who graduated from Hollidaysburg in 2016, said. “So the pitching is the only thing you take differently. You still swing and play the field the same.”

In addition to the change in pitching technique, Sparks-Zembower had to adapt to new league rules. Her team, Old Canal Inn, participates in Hollidaysburg’s 50/70 league for 13-year-olds.

In 50/70 baseball, the pitching distance is 50 feet from the mound to home plate, with bases 70 feet apart, compared to the 46/60 split of a traditional Little League field.

With the larger field, and more aggressive rules on base running, 50/70 serves as a step up from Little League, which helps players prepare for the stiff competition of high school ball.

Before the season, the league’s coaches draft their teams.

And since she knew nearly all of the boys from her younger brother’s previous teams, Sparks-Zembower said she was able to draft a team with quality in every position.

“When I did the draft, the first thing was getting a pitcher I knew was accurate and throws hard … then fielding the other positions,” she said. “If I knew them and their talent I took them.”

Player selection was not the only hurdle Sparks-Zembower overcame this season.

“From when I started watching Demari, there has never been a woman coaching in this league,” she said.

According to Sparks-Zembower, this lack of diversity was not caused by any specific league bylaw or policy but a combination of factors.

“Most women don’t play baseball,” she said. “A lot of the kids think if it’s a woman coach, they don’t know what they’re doing because it’s a different sport.”

But with the boys on Sparks-Zembower team, this could not be further from the truth.

“They don’t disagree with me because I do know what I’m talking about,” she said. “A lot of them know my background of where I played.”

And although her team has not won as much as she had hoped, Sparks-Zembower considers the season a success.

“My goal for the season was for them to be able to have fun, and not be as stressed when they’re coming to the games,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot of that out of them. They love the team.”

This mentality can largely be attributed to Sparks-Zembower’s mother, Jill Sparks, 44, who serves as her assistant coach.

Sparks played softball at Hollidaysburg Area High School.

“She’s always been one to help my softball teams, so it’s the same thing,” Sparks-Zembower said.

Sparks-Zembower relies on her mother’s years of experience to help select team lineups, choose batting order and manage team morale.

“She keeps them in line,” Sparks-Zembower said, “and she helps them when they’re making errors, and shows them what they’re doing wrong as well as I do.”

Sparks’ knowledge of the game comes from a wealth of experience on both sides of the plate.

Since she started playing in third grade, Sparks has gone on to coach her daughter’s softball team twice, and has been assistant coach for her 8-year-old son Imere’s Little League team.

But no matter what age or sport she coaches, Sparks’ approach is the same.

“The fundamentals of softball and baseball are the same thing; throwing, fielding and hitting,” she said. “It’s just the size of the ball is different and the way you pitch.”

For her overall vision for the season, Sparks and her daughter are in lockstep.

“Our goal this year was, ‘women can coach baseball too,’ we can coach these kids, we can win games, and to make it fun for the kids also,” Sparks said.

Her peers have been impressed.

“Having had the opportunity to coach Demari, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and get to know Macie and Jill extremely well,” Jim McGough, Hollidaysburg Area Summer Baseball League president, said. “They’ve been actively involved in our league for six or seven years.

“They embody exactly what we’re looking for in terms of coaching,” McGough said. “They have the heart, the passion, the sportsmanship, and they make it all about the kids.”

With only a single season under their belts, the Sparks family is already leading by example.

“(The league has) only benefited from having people like them actively involved,” McGough said. “Macie takes her experience, and looks to develop each one of the kids she’s coaching, in a way that allows them to take steps forward regardless of their skill set.

“That’s what we ask for from our coaches, and she goes above and beyond that for all of her kids. The kids love playing for her.”

Conner Goetz is a Mirror news intern.

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