Slow-pitch softball has become the favorite alternative spring sport in the Metro Conference.

The Metro remains the only local boys high school league to offer the sport, which was introduced 15 years ago.

Other scholastic sports are often fraught with stress as peer pressure and coaches' expectations cost varsity athletics much of their fun and relaxation. Not so with slow-pitch softball, in which players and coaches agree on a laissez faire attitude that mirrors this league's laid-back style. This difference draws a sharp contrast with other Metro Conference sports where the competition and performance rank among the region's best.

A misplayed fly ball or botched cutoff throw might be a reason for a baseball player to hang his head in shame, but the self-proclaimed alternative nature of slow-pitch keeps everyone from taking anything too seriously.

"There really is a unique attitude among the players that this is a different type of varsity sport," Coach John Swiatocha of St. John's said. "We have players who've played other varsity sports and also players whose only varsity experience has been softball. Everyone takes playing seriously, but coaches try to keep from adding any pressure. This is the players' game to enjoy."

Jim Walton is the cadet colonel of St. John's student junior ROTC brigade. It's a position that requires excellent grades and special responsibilites. But there's always been time for softball and he is a crack left fielder.

"This is a fun sport," said Walton, who will attend West Point next year. "Sure, everyone wants to win, but no one is really worried about it."

The interest is so great that nearly every school in the league fields two varsity teams. St. John's had 60 players at its first tryout, but the turnout dwindled to two teams of 20 within several weeks. No one was cut.

"This is one sport where every player has a chance to be great," said Swiatocha. "Some of these guys can't walk and talk at the same time when they start, but we work with them and by the time they graduate there's a great improvment, especially in their self-confidence."

The regular season consists of games against each of the league's other teams and ends with a championship tournament. The regular season champion also plays in the tournament, but, if it doesn't win the tournament, there's a one-game championship playoff.

Although some schools such as Gonzaga use softball as an extramural rather than an interscholastic varsity sport, the participants nevertheless agree that participation is the thing that counts in this league.

"Its not whether there's a varsity letter awarded or not that matters with softball," said Athletic Director Mark Gowin of Gonzaga, where softball is a club sport. "This is a game played solely for fun and that's enough for our players and coaches."

St. John's finished third in the regular season and advanced to the postseason tournament semifinals before losing to DeMatha, 17-7. The Stags, who won the regular season title, lost the double-elimination tournament title to defending champion Gonzaga, 10-9 and 14-3.

The Stags won the regular season championship as Tommy Rutto's grand slam powered De Matha to a 9-4 victory over Gonzaga at Fletcher's Field in Riverdale.