Prom, high school playoffs a delicate balance

Nicole Pellegrini (foreground) and teammate Katie Denning (left of Nicole) will be trying to balance a day of softball playoffs for the Wando Warriors and going to the prom this Saturday. Photographed on Wednesday April 25, 2012. (Wade Spees/

Before the softball season started, Steve Legette told his Wando High School players that they controlled their own destiny.

Not for the playoffs. For the prom.

“I told them, if we finish second in our conference, we might have to be on the road on prom day,” said Legette, the Warriors’ coach. “If we win the conference, we’ll be at home and will have more control over our schedule.

“I tried to use the prom as a motivational tool.”

Legette’s tactic worked, as Wando went 7-1 in Region 7-AAAA to win the regional title and earn home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Warriors defeated North Augusta, 5-3, in the district playoffs Saturday and enjoyed the prom that night. They will play for a berth in the Lower State finals on Wednesday.

“We definitely didn’t want to go out of town on prom night,” said Wando senior Nicole Pellegrini. “We have to get ready, and it’d be just too stressful.”

The prom vs. playoffs conflict is an annual headache for high school baseball and softball coaches in South Carolina, with playoff games and prom nights often coinciding.

Wando will host baseball and softball playoff games today, and the prom is set for tonight. Stratford softball and James Island baseball faced similar dilemmas, rescheduling playoff games so players can go to their proms tonight.

For players, balancing two of high school’s biggest memory-makers — playing for a state championship and going to prom — can be challenging.

“We’ve been working for this our whole lives,” said Pellegrini, who plays first base for Wando. “And for the seniors, it’s our last chance to win a state championship. But it’s also our last prom, and that’s a big deal for us, too. We have to balance it out the best we can.”

Veteran coaches long ago learned that it doesn’t pay to make high school athletes choose between the prom and playing.

“Prom is a big deal,” said James Island baseball coach Tom Hatley. “It’d be rough to take a mama’s wrath if their son or daughter couldn’t go to prom. It’s an experience they should have if they want to.”

If forced to choose, team would come first, said Wando softball player Katie Denning.

“Clearly, we’d come to the game,” said Denning, also a senior. “We’d do the prom after if we had to.”

Hatley said he’s run into the prom/playoff conflict about eight times during his 25-year career, and that coaches work together to make sure their players can do both.

“We get together with the other coaches and tell them the situation, to see if we can move the game to another day, or at least play it earlier in the day,” he said. “I’ve never had a coach say no, because they know it could be them in that situation one day, and it could bite them in the rear.”

But when teams are on the road on prom night, logistics can be dicey. Bishop England’s baseball team was in Barnwell on prom night during its 2007 state title run.

“Half the team had their parents drive up so they could leave right after the game and get back for prom,” Bishops coach Mike Darnell said. “I don’t know if they even showered. They were changing into tuxes during the car ride back.”

The Stratford baseball team once attended prom in dirt-covered uniforms after a playoff game, softball coach Debra Tolar recalled. She moved her team’s playoff game to Friday to allow her players to devote Saturday to the prom.

“I took a poll of our team,” she said. “Half of them are going to the prom. They’ve got to do their hair and nails, and that eats up a lot of the day. It adds some stress to them, as well.”

Tolar, in her 24th year of coaching, said her teams have faced a triple-whammy in the past — prom, a playoff game and taking the SAT on the same day. “Now that’s stressful,” she said.

James Island’s Hatley faced the prom/playoff dilemma during his playing days in the 1970s.

“My best friend slid into home and had a big strawberry on his knee,” he said. “We used to wear white tuxes in the ’70s, and I’ll never forget he had a big red blood stain on his pants at the prom. We still joke about that.”

There are more serious concerns as well. At some schools, prom has evolved into a two-day event, with students going to parties at “prom houses” on Friday night before the Saturday prom.

“That’s the biggest thing I worry about,” said Wando baseball coach Dirk Thomas, whose team also won the Region 7-AAAA title. “When I was in school, we didn’t have prom houses or beach houses the day before the prom. From 6 o’clock Friday until noon Saturday when they come to the game, I don’t have these kids.

“What they are doing between 6 and game time at these prom houses, that’s out of our control. But I think our guys will show up and play and be focused. They understand that for those two or three hours, the prom is not that important.”

USA Today recently reported that the average price tag for prom night is $1,078, up from $807 last year, so some families have a lot of money tied up in the prom.

“Tuxes, limos, dresses, prom houses,” said Wando’s Thomas. “It’s a lot different from when I was growing up.”

Students aren’t the only ones with prom/playoff concerns.

Said Wando’s Legette, “I’ve got to chaperone the darn thing, too.”

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 937-5596.