Back in high school, Rachael O’Donnell only played sports when she had to in gym class. As for her husband, Ryan, he was one those kids who dove into almost everything, including soccer, baseball, basketball, track and rowing.
As married adults, the two have found a common sport: kickball.
“Anyone can play, because there’s a very small learning curve,” Ryan O’Donnell says. “Everybody can kick, even if they don’t kick very well. If you can just put your foot in front of a ball, you have a chance to get on base.”
Rachael and Ryan are co-commissioners of the Kickball League of Hampton Roads’ Peninsula program. Open to anyone 21 and older, the co-ed social league has grown steadily as people rediscover a fun childhood game and turn it into a chance to make new friends or bond with co-workers or neighbors.
By spring, Ryan plans to launch a separate corporate league for businesses, especially those looking for another perk to help retain younger workers. He and his wife work together at a small software company in Newport News.
“Anything that gets people out from behind their desks, having a fun time together, is good,” Rachael says. “Really, our goal is to bring something positive to this entire community.”
Friendships on the field
Formed in 2013, the local league has 15 teams for fall, with 15 to 22 players apiece. Each season is sponsored by a local bar, which then offers specials to players for after-game gatherings.
Teams play Thursday nights on softball-sized fields at the Boys & Girls Club on Adams Drive in Newport News. This fall’s $50 season fee covers 10 games, a championship tournament, two parties and a T-shirt.
The red rubber ball is just like the ones in elementary school, and rules are most similar to baseball.
Kickers come to the plate with one ball and one strike already, in order to speed games along. If they whiff twice or foul off two balls, they strike out. An umpire stands behind home plate to judge balls pitched underhand; kickers can bunt or aim for a long bomb. Games last seven innings.
Robert Urquhart of Norfolk, in his fifth season, loves the game so much that he tried to play last spring the night after surgery on a broken finger.
“I like the camaraderie and the competition,” says Urquhart, 33. “You can be a little less athletic than you were in high school but still look like a star. You can also be past 30 and get through a whole game without being in pain.”
Most players come in as groups, including employees of Canon Virginia, Ferguson Enterprises and Newport News Shipbuilding. For the first time this year, the league also had enough individuals sign up to create another team.
“This is a heavy transplant area, and people are looking for connections,” Rachael O’Donnell notes. “We’re also at that awkward age where it can be hard to meet new friends.”
Kicking off new seasons
Ryan O’Donnell, 33, introduced Rachael, 34, to kickball, when they were living in Florida and still just dating. The couple moved to Virginia in 2013 and have headed up the local league since 2016.
Ryan, mainly a pitcher and outfielder, and Rachael, an outfielder or shortstop, still keep in close touch with some of their Florida kickball friends.
Here, players come from all over the Peninsula and sometimes the Southside, although the league also offers teams in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach. Team names are creative: Swift Kick in the Grass, Free Balling and The Fighting Margaritas, to name a few.
During the fall and spring seasons, teams are divided into divisions based on skill level, while summer is more relaxed – not that the atmosphere ever gets too tense. On a recent Thursday night, cries of “Go, go!” and “Good eye!” filled the air, and teams ended contests with high fives.
Ryan now is busy looking for sponsors for the upcoming corporate league, which he hopes will both help boost companies’ morale and draw in more younger players in general.
“It’s a great time,” he says. “You’re never too old for this game.”