When 1992 Fairmont Heights High School graduate PeLar Bennett-Pryor was in high school, the only real opportunities she had to play softball were at family functions and the during the Hornets' spring season, she said. So, when the former Bowie State University catcher arrived at college, the structure and time commitment, along with the level of competition, was unfamiliar territory, she said.
Travel softball, which — at this point — usually is a necessity for anyone hoping to play at the collegiate level, remains rare in Prince George's County. But the five-year old Bowie-based Blue Jays organization is making attempts to change the culture of the sport in the area, founder Nelson Grillo said. The Blue Jays are the county's only year-round club team, he added.
“[Softball] is the culture in other counties like Montgomery, Calvert and Anne Arundel,” he said. “It's really emphasized at a younger age, that's the sport girls want to play. It's a skill-based sport so you really have to start young. Here, we have to compete against a whole myriad of sports [that are more popular]. Traditionally, there's not much emphasis on the sport [in Prince George's County] as far as culture and excitement around the sport, but we're trying to change that.”
Bennett-Pryor, who has coached at Bowie State, Howard University and South Carolina State over the past 13 years, is currently directing the non-profit organization's 18-under team that features nearly half of this spring's All-Gazette softball team and two of last year's all-county players who are now playing in college. She brings a high level of coaching experience the Blue Jays pride themselves on. Grillo's daughter, 2013 Gazette Player of the Year and Eleanor Roosevelt rising senior pitcher Joya Grillo, said Bennett-Pryor is also great mentor since she experienced county softball and succeeded at the college level.
In addition to trying to draw in experienced full-time coaches such as Bennett-Pryor — Largo coach Keith Hutchins, Bowie coach Joe Sullivan and Montgomery County-based Ray Wynter, whose daughter, Tia Mitchell, plays for Clarksburg and is a University of Virginia recruit, are all on the coaching staff — the Blue Jays have worked with Greater Washington Fastpitch Softball Hall of Fame pitcher and 2010 Arizona State graduate Meghan Elliott and University of Maryland, College Park assistant Jill Callaway and her 5 Star Athletics organization.
Such endeavors, as well as travel and the overall costs of running of a team, require a certain monetary commitment, but Grillo said the Blue Jays organizations distinguishes itself from many travel ball organizations in that every effort — a lot of fundraising and payment plans — is made to prevent cost from becoming an obstacle for players looking to pursue a high level of softball.
The Blue Jays organization was founded in 2009 with one 13-under team that included Grillo's daughter. During the 2010-11 season, the Blue Jays fielded two teams: 15U and 13U. The following year it had five. Next season a 10U is planned, the elder Grillo said.
“I know I personally was looking around for [travel] teams for my daughter to play on and the dilemma was there weren't any teams locally, the closest teams were 45 minutes away in Montgomery or Calvert [counties],” Nelson Grillo said. “I found a few parents who wanted to make a go of it.”
There is great camaraderie between the older players and the younger age groups, Nelson Grillo said. Former Frederick Douglass and current South Carolina State pitcher Jareece Sayles said she makes a concerted effort to cultivate relationships and help out the organization's younger pitchers. Sayles is one of three Blue Jays alumni currently playing collegiately; 2013 Charles H. Flowers graduate Marissa Hughes is at Virginia State and Toni Hinton is at Morgan State
The Blue Jays 18U team picked up three top 3 results during tournament play in the 2013-14 season, which concluded last weekend. The 14U squad won one and finished second in another. As it has grown, the Blue Jays organization has attracted players from neighboring counties and surely has helped deepen high school softball within Prince George's. Most of the county's top players play within the Blue Jays organization — aside from travel ball there is a summer high school team called the Blue Angels that features players such as rising Laurel junior pitcher Ashley Woodall, who led the Spartans to this year's region final.
“These girls should have the opportunity to learn and get exposed to the sport,” Bennett-Pryor said. “[The Blue Jays organization] is booming, and I love it.”