A Requiem for My Captain

From the time I was little, I studied my hero’s every move (2001).

From the time I was little, I studied my hero’s every move (2001).

I can still remember it like it was yesterday. Dave Winfield Day at Yankee Stadium, August 19, 2001. My Dad Tony and I arrived early on that scorching Sunday in the Bronx, as we did each time we ventured to The House That Ruth Built, to greet our boys of summer as they entered the Stadium. In the pre-9/11 world, Yankee fandom was quite different, as it simply took an earlier trek across the George Washington Bridge to have direct access to New York’s favorite sons; a truly personalized Yankee Stadium experience.

We watched as Paul O’Neil, Tino Martinez, and Derek Jeter approached the gates of Yankee Stadium like soldiers going off to war. While positioned along the barricade that separated me from my Yankee-favorites in suits, my Dad encouraged me to hop the fence and give Jeter a hug. I was still at an age when the bright-eyed Yankee shortstop would have been obligated to concede my embrace, thus, fulfilling my youthful aspiration to meet him.

I got one foot over the barricade before a police officer made his way over and said that since he heard my Dad encouraging the illegal act, handcuffs would be waiting for him if the deed was actually done. Needless to say, I did not meet my hero in that moment, and never was able to give him a hug. There was still batting practice to look forward to, my Dad promised.

I was eight; a budding Little League softball player and the daughter of a Yankee-loving single father. Without my mom in the picture, those days were often hard, as my Dad and I didn’t have much but each other and the small apartment we shared in Pequannock Township, New Jersey. No matter how daunting and dysfunctional our situation got at that time, the constant we both had to fall back on was that for 162 games a year, we had the New York Yankees. And most important to me, we had Derek Jeter.

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment in time when I became a Derek Jeter fan, but my love for him was always deeper than that of the other little girls my age, who either thought he was dreamy or liked him because he was born in our small, suburban hometown. I didn’t want to grow up and marry Derek Jeter; I wanted to grow up and play like Derek Jeter.

As a result, I soaked up every ounce of information about Jeter that I could and became a walking fact machine for him in that summer of 2001, after reading his and Jack Curry’s book, The Life You Imagine: Life Lessons for Achieving Your Dreams; not exactly similar to the Beverly Cleary and Andrew Clements books that adorned my eight-year-old bedroom bookshelf. I can remember reading about Jeter’s work ethic, and how he would come home during his lunch break every day in high school and take 100 swings. That really resonated with me, even as a little girl, and I never forgot it.

My first encounter with Derek Jeter (2001).

My first encounter with Derek Jeter (2001).

So, when Jeter approached me during batting practice before the Dave Winfield Day ceremony on August 19, 2001, it was naturally the best moment of my young life to date. After my failed attempt to meet Derek earlier in the day, I had been tirelessly calling out to him while standing beyond the wall of the third base line with my Dad, amongst a small group of ten or so other hopeful fans. The group of fans around us even dubbed me “Little Jeter,” as a result of the number two on my back and my fervent calls out to my hero. Derek had been fielding ground balls at shortstop in his Yankees wind-breaker, seemingly remiss to my hankering calls. But to my great surprise and eventual elation, he began back-peddling towards me and the rest of the small group of fans, and it quickly became apparent that he was making his way over to sign for us. Almost immediately, the section was blocked off, and for about five minutes, it was as though I had been chosen by him to join some exclusive clique. I had never been so happy. In those minutes, on the same day that Derek’s childhood hero Dave Winfield was being honored by the Yankees, my own personal Dave Winfield signed the brim of my over-sized hat, answered my trivial questions, and stole my heart forever.

For the next five years, my adoration for Jeter and the Yankees simultaneously grew with my love for playing softball. I was a catcher and shortstop, donning the number two on my back like my hero. I watched as Captain Clutch continuously came through for his team when they needed him most, while doing so with a certain grace and competitiveness about him that was both dignified and intimidating to opponents. I studied his mannerisms, from his calm and steady demeanor on the field, to his child-like and passionate ways of celebrating. I learned how to win from watching Derek Jeter, and thus, an insatiable desire for victory was also ingrained within me.

When my team made it to the Little League Softball World Series championship game in 2006, Jeter sent his well-wishes and told us to enjoy every minute of the experience. Ironically, my team from Pequannock, NJ (Derek’s birthplace) played and lost to Mattawan, Michigan, a town 15 minutes outside of Kalamazoo, where he grew up.

My second encounter with Jeter had me staring at him, completely starstruck (2006).

My second encounter with Jeter had me staring at him, completely starstruck (2006).

Our second place finish in the Little League Softball World Series led me to Derek Jeter, yet again, as we were invited by the Yankees to attend batting practice from the first row behind home plate. Derek once again came over to sign for me, but this time, my thirteen-year-old self could hardly form intelligible words to speak to my hero. Rather than letting him know that he had been personally responsible for providing so much happiness to my Dad and me during some of the hardest times of our lives, and was also indirectly responsible for my own softball success up to that point, I instead spent most of the fleeting moments with my Captain smiling senselessly at him. Words of that weight were nearly impossible for my teenage self to comprehend, never mind express.

It was at the Little League Softball World Series where I was forced to make a number change. When we were given new uniforms to represent the Eastern Region of the United States, our numbers were granted based on our sizes. I fought for my number two, acting as though a part of my identity was being given to a smaller-statured teammate. My requests were in vain, however, and thus, my relationship with the number eleven began. In my young mind, I was still paying homage to Derek with the double-digit number. If one looked at my back and saw Roman numerals or added one plus one to equal my cherished number two, it was still symbolic of my hero.

I continued to wear number eleven, even through high school, and later, in college. It represented my personal and unique tie to Derek Jeter, while granting me an identity away from the “Little Jeter” perception I had wanted to embody as a younger player.

When it came time to make a decision about where to attend college and play Division I softball, it seemed fitting, especially considering my Yankee and Jeter-history, that Fordham University came knocking. Just six stops on the subway from Yankee Stadium, Fordham was the closest I could get to playing for the Yankees, and once given the opportunity to play for the (other) Bronx Bombers, I couldn’t pass it up.

My decision to attend Fordham to play softball not only afforded me numerous chances to see my Captain play at the end of his career, but also use the competitiveness I learned from watching him to help lead my own team to two-consecutive Atlantic 10 Conference championships during my sophomore and junior seasons.

You could say I’ve picked up a few things from watching Jeter for so many years. (Left-Courtesy of Lodico.org; Right-Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko).

You could say I’ve picked up a few things from watching Jeter for so many years. (Left-Courtesy of Lodico.org; Right-Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

Now, in the midst of the final season of my playing career, I, too, am the captain of a championship-winning team in the Bronx, having just said goodbye to the Yankee who has shaped me, while also preparing to bid farewell to the game that has made me.

While the constant reminders of Jeter’s greatness on television, in the papers, and on social media make parting with my hero like losing a loved one, what gives me solace is knowing that his impact is not ephemeral in my life or the lives of millions of other Yankee fans.

He will live on forever in my mind and heart not as much for what he did in-between the white lines, but for what he unknowingly and unintentionally did for my soul; he invigorated my young spirit at a time when circumstances were bleak and ignited a competitive fire that has taken me to incredible heights and places in my life on the softball diamond and off of it.

The days of contemplating hopping over a barricade and giving Derek Jeter a hug are long gone, as the world has since been forever changed and that little girl is now a woman. What remains, however, are the memories of a back-peddling superstar, who heard the shouts of an adoring eight-year-old girl, stepped into her world, if only for five minutes, and became indirectly responsible for shaping so much of her life some 13 years later. For that, and a lifetime’s worth of clutch moments and championship celebrations, she’ll be forever grateful.

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Fall Season Rouses Memories, Reality of Situation for Temple Softball

With school back in session, college softball players are once again gracing the dirt playing fields at universities around the country. New cleats are being broken in, bats scuffed for the first time, and the groundwork for springtime championships is presently being laid.

For college softball players, the fall season is a time when the innocence and purity of the game is most fully captured. A time when exhibition games are played without the pressure of looming statistics. A time when early-morning practices begin on dew-soaked outfield grass under rays of barely-risen sunshine. A time when even the loftiest dreams and possibilities for the upcoming season seem possible. A beautiful time, for certain.

Steph Pasquale (25) is greeted by her Temple teammates after hitting a home run in 2011. (Courtesy of Philly.com)

Steph Pasquale (25) is greeted by her Temple teammates after hitting a home run in 2011. (Courtesy of Philly.com)

For former Temple Softball players and coaches, however, the falling of the leaves this autumn will symbolize the end of a season in their lives; a reminder of the cherished memories of what once was and the harsh reality of what currently is.

For the first time since 1976, softball will not be played at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At Ambler Softball Field, the home of the Owls for 11 seasons, the dirt will remain settled, the field will stay bare of white chalk lines, and the stands will be devoid of people. All that will endure is an eerie silence pervading through the emptiness of a space once occupied by the cheers of fans and players alike, as well as the pinging and popping sounds of balls meeting bats and gloves.

The Temple University softball team was informed last December that 2014 would be its final season in existence. The decision of university officials to cut the program also involved the cancellation of the university’s baseball and men’s track programs at the start of the 2014-15 school year. Additionally, the men’s crew, men’s gymnastics, and women’s rowing squads were relegated from scholarship-funded varsity teams to club sports.

Temple University’s president Neil Theobald said the reasoning behind the decision was due to the university’s commitment to provide funding for other areas within its athletic program.

“Rightsizing our program allows us to fully fund all women’s scholarships; fully fund NCAA-permitted coaching positions; and increase the number of team doctors, academic advisers and trainers,” Theobald said in February.

The estimated $2.5 million saved from Temple’s eradicated programs was applied to the remaining sports teams, including the recent refurbishment of locker rooms used by the school’s football team.

The money-centered decision to cut Temple’s softball program left 18 players, who would have claimed spots on this year’s roster, scrambling for other options.

While five non-graduating players decided to stay at Temple to complete their degrees devoid of their softball experiences, the remaining 13 team members, including three incoming recruits, have since found other schools and softball programs to call home. Head coach Joe DiPietro also recently began his first season as the head coach of Hampton University’s softball program, having relocated to Virginia after five successful seasons at Temple.

Joe DiPietro. (Courtesy of Alex Udowenko)

Joe DiPietro. (Courtesy of Alex Udowenko)

During a tenure which saw his squad advance to three consecutive Atlantic 10 Conference tournaments, lead the nation in home runs with 94 in 2013, and become the only team at the university to increase its win total in each of its last five seasons, DiPietro believed he would end his career at the helm of Temple’s softball program. Now, he and the other 18 former Temple softball players are left to wonder what might have been.

“I truly believe that we were progressing towards being one of the top teams in the Northeast,” DiPietro said. “During my five years prior to the cuts, we were able to recruit some top-tier players, especially Sarah Prezioso and Steph Pasquale, culminating with Steph being named an NFCA All-American.”

For the aforementioned Pasquale, an injury during her senior season at Temple in 2014 granted her a redshirt year of eligibility. Due to the cancellation of Temple’s softball program, the All-American catcher was forced to transfer from the Philadelphia university in order to continue her softball career. Temple’s only softball All-American has since found a home with the Nebraska Cornhuskers of the Big Ten Conference, but still mourns the loss of the program she helped become relevant.

“It hit me hard when I had to transfer,” Pasquale stated. “It was like starting over again. My heart just aches for those who returned this year to find no more softball and my teammates who were forced to start over and find new schools.”

The sadness that Pasquale feels about the loss of the Temple Softball program is coupled with feelings of pride, however, for four years of lofty team and individual accomplishments.

“What I’ll always remember is that we as a whole brought Temple Softball up from the ground and changed the program for the better,” Pasquale said. “We will always know what we accomplished.”

Although the leaves will change over a player-less Ambler Softball Field this fall, it is the legacy of Temple Softball that will endure the test of time.

“I think the legacy will be of a program that did things the right way,” DiPietro stated. “We graduated all of our players and each team had a 3.0 GPA or better. Being around each other and the life-long friendships that our players were able to forge will be something that they’ll have forever, and that makes me smile.”

For DiPietro, Pasquale, and the rest of the Temple Softball family, no changing season or university decision could ever take these invaluable things away.

Five NCAA Female Athletes to Watch this Fall

College campuses across the country are once again bustling with students and professors. With the return of school also comes the return of NCAA sports. Although college football players often dominate the fall sports marquee, the NCAA also boasts some electrifying female athletes worth mentioning during its autumn action. Take a look at five Division I female athletes to watch this fall.

Abby Dahlkemper looks to lead UCLA to its second straight NCAA title. (Courtesy of UCLA Sports Information)

Abby Dahlkemper. (Courtesy of UCLA Sports Information)

Abby Dahlkemper – UCLA Soccer

Senior defender Abby Dahlkemper not only led UCLA to its first national championship in 2013, but she also became the first-ever Bruins player to win the Honda Award for soccer. She is a three-time All-American, as well as a three-time First Team All-Pac-12 honoree. Dahlkemper was the leader of UCLA’s defense last season, which finished first in the nation with 18 shutouts and had a goals against average of 0.30. The 2013 NSCAA Scholar All-America Player of the Year was also the first defender in 10 years to be named a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy in 2013, which is given to the top male and female college soccer players in the nation.

Emily Wold – UNC Field Hockey

On the heels of a masterful 2013 season, midfielder Emily Wold entered her junior campaign on the preseason All-ACC squad for the second-ranked Tar Heels. Wold was recognized as a First Team All-America selection in 2013, and is the reigning South Region Player of the Year. She led the nation in assists last season with 23 and took her team to the NCAA national semifinals. Wold was also the only collegiate member of the U.S. Women’s National Team this past summer.

Micha Hancock. (Courtesy of Jeff Moreland)

Micha Hancock. (Courtesy of Jeff Moreland)

Micha Hancock – Penn State Volleyball

Hancock, a two-time AVCA First Team All-American, enters her senior season fresh-off a national championship with the Nittany Lions. The 2013 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player was also named the Big Ten Setter of the Year last season, after ranking second nationally and first in the Big Ten in aces per set, with 0.65. Penn State’s all-time career leader in aces led her team’s offense with a .305 hitting clip. She and the rest of a young Nittany Lions squad are off to a hot start, and are currently the third-ranked team in the country.

Morgan Brian – UVA Soccer

Brian, a senior midfielder and U.S. Women’s National Team member, led Virginia to the NCAA national semifinals last season, while also winning the MAC Hermann Trophy and being named the Soccer America Player of the Year. The two-time NSCAA 1st Team All-American tied for the ACC lead in scoring with 46 points on 16 goals and a league-leading 14 assists in 2013. She was named to Soccer America’s pre-season All-America team this year, and her second-ranked Cavaliers are poised for another strong finish.

Emma Bates. (Courtesy of Rick Bowmer)

Emma Bates. (Courtesy of Rick Bowmer)

Emma Bates – Boise State Cross Country

Bates was the 2013 NCAA Cross Country National Runner-Up, and received First Team All-America honors in the outdoor 5,000m and 10,000m events. She is the reigning NCAA West Region Champion and USTFCCCA West Region Women’s Athlete of the Year. This redshirt junior distance runner came within three seconds of the NCAA title last year and will likely be the favorite at this year’s championships.

Recapping the Summer That Was for USA Softball

On a roster that boasts five players who are still in college, with the remainder of the team having graduated within the last two years, it is an understatement to say that this year’s Team USA squad was laden with youth. Although they lacked a significant amount of international softball experience, the Americans were still able to capture the World Cup of Softball championship, as well as the Italian Softball Week title. Despite these successes, Team Japan proved to be the American kryptonite this summer, however, as Team USA finished second to the Japanese in both the Canadian Open Fastpitch Invitational and the ISF Women’s World Championship. Take a look back at the summer that was for USA Softball.

  1. World Cup IX – Irvine, California (July 7-12)
Team USA captured the World Cup of Softball with a 5-2 win over Canada. (Courtesy of Team USA)

Team USA captured the World Cup of Softball with a 5-2 win over Canada. (Courtesy of USA Softball)

In the first major tournament of the summer, Team USA won the 2014 World Cup of Softball after defeating Canada 5-2 in the championship game. The red, white, and blue won the tournament for the seventh time in nine years, and went unbeaten with a perfect 7-0 record. In just her second summer with Team USA, Sara Nevins led the Americans in the pitching circle, finishing the week with 20 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings, and an ERA of 0.53. Veteran power-hitter Valerie Arioto belted five home runs with 12 RBI and a 1.400 slugging percentage during the tournament to lead the offensive charge for Team USA. Infielders Raven Chavanne and Lauren Gibson also had productive offensive showings at the tournament. The former college teammates at the University of Tennessee hit a combined .595, going 22-for-37 from the dish with 14 RBI.

  1. Canadian Open FP International – Surrey, B.C., Canada (July 15-21)
Amanda Chidester led the way for Team USA at the Canadian Open. (Courtesy of Team USA Softball)

Amanda Chidester led the Team USA offense at the Canadian Open. (Courtesy of USA Softball)

Team USA took second place at the Canadian Open Fastpitch International tournament after falling to Team Japan 7-0 in five innings. The Americans finished the week with an overall record of 9-3, and 3-2 in the playoff portion of the invitational. After falling to Team Canada 10-6 in the opening round of playoff action, Team USA bounced back with three straight routs over the NJCAA All-Stars, Team Mexico, and Team Canada. Amanda Chidester paced the American offense, batting .545 during the five games of playoff action, while Raven Chavanne hit a respectable.353 with 6 RBI.

  1. Italian Softball Week – Azzano, Italy (August 6-10)

Despite falling to Australia in the third game of play during Italian Softball week, Team USA bounced back to defeat the Aussies 6-2 in the tournament championship game. The Americans capped off the tournament with a 4-1 record. American outfielder Michelle Moultrie was named the tournament’s offensive champion and MVP after posting a .643 batting average, while Jolene Henderson was recognized as the pitching champion.

Sara Nevins was America's ace in 2014. (Courtesy of DennisAndersonPhotography.com)

Sara Nevins was America’s ace in 2014. (Courtesy of Dennis Anderson Photography)

  1. ISF Women’s World Championship – Haarlem, Netherlands (August 12-24)

Team USA capped off its season with a silver medal in international softball’s most prestigious tournament, the 14th annual ISF Women’s World Championship in Holland. USA finished with a tournament record of 9-2, after falling to Team Japan and its pitching ace Yukiko Ueno twice in the tournament, including a 4-1 loss in the title game. With the victory, Japan earned its second-straight and third-overall world title.

Team USA concluded the summer with an overall record of 28-6 in international play. Raven Chavanne was the top-hitting American in 2014, batting .464 for the summer. Sara Nevins turned in the best overall ERA on the USA pitching staff at 0.87.