BOONE — Of all the sports teams in Watauga County, the team that Bert Valery formed four years ago is arguably the most unique.
The softball team he formed is reserved for players who are at least 60 years old. Valery isn’t necessarily looking to stock his team with former Major Leaguers or former college players.
Talent levels or experience are not important to Valery. He wants players who are dependable and who are simply looking to have fun playing softball.
“We’re out to just have fun,” Valery said. “We’ll play other teams and if we don’t win, it’s no big deal. We want to have a good time, so everybody is welcome here on all talent levels.”
Watauga practices two days a week at Newland’s Rock Field on Tuesdays and at Watauga County Parks and Recreation on Thursdays. Both sessions begin at 9:30 a.m.
Watauga plays games against other teams Wednesdays and Fridays either at the Watauga Softball Complex or at Rock Field. They’ve also played several games in Johnson City, Tenn., Hendersonville, Ashe County and Charlotte.
Each game day includes a doubleheader. There is no official league, but the Watauga team played 102 games in the 2018 schedule, which began in April and go through October.
Valery doesn’t keep track of a won-loss record and there is no championship. The teams do the umpiring themselves and he said there isn’t any arguing about plays.
“I hope to keep it where it’s just a fun league where we’re not that competitive in terms of winning at all costs,” Valery said. “We want to be competitive in playing well. We don’t want to be competitive in being nasty people where we get mad at our own teammates for making an error. It’s a lot more fun to say don’t worry about it. Let’s go out and have a beer afterwards.”
“It’s good fun,” team member Tommy Borkowski, 70, said. “It’s social and it’s also good exercise. It keeps you young.”
Valery, who is 79 years old, had the idea of starting the over-60 softball team when he lived in Florida and he played on a similar team. He moved to Watauga County in 2015 and started the senior team.
Players from several walks of life are on team. Scott Judge, a CPA, the newest member on the team, commutes from Baltimore to Foscoe. An Orioles fanatic, Judge, who is 60, makes the trip to Boone every two weeks.
“It’s a good group of guys from what I’ve seen so far,” Judge said. “My wife is retired now, so we basically try to get down twice a month.”
Another team member, Lawrence Caviness, lives in the county and has ties to the university. He played in his first game on May 22 and enjoyed the experience. Caviness was not able to play last year because of a broken leg.
“I haven’t played any organized softball in 15 years,” Caviness said. “I’m sore, so thank the Lord for Tylenol, but it went pretty well. I was pleasantly surprised.”
“We have several from App State who are professors,” Valery said. “I own an insurance agency. One guy is a jeweler. One guy runs a garage. One is an electrician. One is a plumber. Several are farmers, so we have everything — just guys who are interested in playing ball.”
Valery said most of the players who are on the Watauga team or its opponents have not played competitively since high school. He recalled one player who had a college baseball background, but went to play in Charlotte where there are several senior teams that are more competitive.
Fielding a complete team can be a problem, especially if all of the players are not retired. Before a recent game, Watauga was going to play in Johnson City, but were four players short.
Valery sent emails out to any possible players and three answered. A fourth, a new player, showed up to the game, which gave Watauga enough players.
“We’re not charging anything to be in the league,” Valery said. “There’s no ‘you’ve got to be here and you’ve got to buy a uniform.’ You never know who’s going to come.”
Finding a site to play isn’t always certain. Valery said Watauga’s Parks and Recreation Department is very cooperative with the team and makes sure they have a place to play.
Sometimes, in other cities, finding field availability can be difficult. A pickleball tournament in Newland forced the teams to play in Boone.
“I can’t say enough good things about the athletic directors here,” Valery said. “Holly Gates and Robby Willis are really helpful. They don’t charge us anything and a lot of these rec players aren’t nearly as cooperative as Watauga has been and Avery has been.”
Valery added that there is no shortage of teams wanting to come to Boone to play, especially from places such as Charlotte or places off the mountain.
“This year, I made up the schedule in January and February,” Valery said. “We’re going to play there in March and April and early May and then they would come to us in the summer. Then we’d reciprocate when the weather cools down again. Teams from Charlotte, they love coming up here and even Johnson City. It’s so much cooler.”
Valery said player safety is a major concern. There are a few changes in the rules to keep the players from getting hurt. Sliding is illegal, and the pitcher has a screen in front of him to protect against line drives up the middle, and any ball that hits the screen is called a strike, such as a foul ball.
Batters step up to home plate, but another plate is set up behind the original to cut down on any collisions at the plate.
The team practices every Tuesday morning at Rock Field in Newland and every Thursday at the Watauga Parks and Rec Complex every Thursday morning.