BY MICHAEL KELLY
NISKAYUNA — Standing in the third base coaching box, Niskayuna softball coach Jules Paul looks like most of his peers. With both hands, he slides his hands across his chest, face, legs — whichever body part he needs to use to signal a player what to do in the batter’s box or on the base paths.
Paul sounds a bit different, though. Mixed in with the standard shouts of encouragement are odd combinations of numbers, letters and words. The combinations — such as “3, A, Apple” — are verbal cues he sends to his players to tell them what to do in certain situations.
“It’s faster than [physical] signs and the other team cannot steal them,” he said.
The Silver Warriors softball team started to use verbal cues — codes, really — to complement physical signs last season. Niskayuna is not alone in Section II in using spoken codes to call out plays, but the Silver Warriors do employ one of the more intricate systems, and use it more than some teams do.
Paul coaches third base with a play sheet of codes in his hand, helping him to call out his team’s plays. In conjunction, each Niskayuna player who heads to the plate wears a black sweatband that encases a similar sheet so there is no confusion. Defensively, only the team’s infielders are required to wear a play sheet — a cheat sheet, really — onto the field.
At first, Paul worried such a system might cause a mental overload for his players. But a friend coaching college softball was using the system and said it was easy enough to implement, so Paul first gave it a try during the 2014 season.
“We’re getting used to it,” said Niskayuna infielder Angela Grant. “But it definitely helps. Coach knows the plays, we know them, and it helps us out.”
The idea, though, is that opponents will not know or be able to steal the codes. It is not rare in softball — or baseball — for opposing teams to try to figure out a coach’s signs to figure out when a team might bunt or steal, but Niskayuna’s verbal cues are varied enough and delivered so quickly as to make that quite difficult.
“This way,” said Kate LaPorta, a Niskayuna outfielder, “teams can’t pick up what we’re doing.”
Paul said the Silver Warriors had one game this season where they slipped up and their signs became not so private. Part of the idea of the play sheet is that the players do not have to know any of the codes by heart; that allows the team to have multiple codes mean the same thing without confusion. In one game, though, some of the team’s players knew what some of Paul’s codes meant well enough that they did not need to check their wristbands.
“So, that kind of gave it away,” said Paul, laughing.
Mostly, though, other teams do not bother trying to steal the Silver Warriors’ signs. Between the club’s physical signs and expansive list of verbal codes, there’s too much going on for opponents to notice a pattern — especially since a large number of the codes coming out of Paul’s mouth seem to be decoys.
Or, maybe they’re not. The Silver Warriors aren’t saying.
“That’s questionable,” said Grant, smiling. “Most of them are true, but some aren’t. It’s debatable.”