A Tribute to 30 Years of Fordham Softball

This upcoming spring will mark Fordham University Softball’s 30th season in existence. Over the past three decades, the Rams from the Bronx have gone from college softball obscurity to excellence on the national level. Fordham posted its first-ever winning season in 2003 and hasn’t looked back since. Under the tutelage of head coach Bridget Orchard, the Rams have had 12-straight winning seasons and have won the Atlantic 10 title in three out of the last four years. With four recent trips to the NCAA tournament under Orchard’s belt and a firmly established winning culture in place, she believes her program is poised for even greater success in upcoming years. Take a trip down memory lane, and relive 30 years of progress for Fordham University Softball:

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.

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.

Plourde and Prezioso Represent Atlantic 10, Exemplify Mid-Major Potential at Next Level

Sara Plourde starred for UMass in the pitching circle (Courtesy of J. Anthony Roberts).

Sara Plourde starred for UMass in the pitching circle. (Courtesy of J. Anthony Roberts)

Former Atlantic 10 softball standouts Sara Plourde and Sarah Prezioso find themselves in the minority of players in the professional and international ranks. Following their stellar careers at UMass and Temple, respectively, it is not their skills that set them apart from the world’s best softball players, but rather the pedigree from which they come. Within the professional and international softball scene, where names like Cat Osterman, Keilani Ricketts, and Natasha Watley headline the competition, it is quite uncommon to find players from mid-major conferences in the mix.

Plourde, a 2012 graduate of UMass, is currently wrapping up her second consecutive summer as a member of Team Canada’s pitching staff. The recently-hired UTEP pitching coach believes that many players in mid-major conferences are unfairly categorized as less-skilled than those at big name schools.

“I full-heartedly believe there are many athletes who are overlooked simply because they don’t play in top conferences,” the three-time All-American hurler said. “There are so many talented players in the mid-major conferences, and only a select group has been given the opportunity to play at the next level.”

Plourde was drafted in 2012 by the Carolina Diamonds (now the Pennsylvania Rebellion) of the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league, following one of the best careers in Atlantic 10 softball history. She led the country in strikeouts each season from 2010-2012 and finished her collegiate career ranked eighth in total strikeouts in NCAA Division I softball history.

Along with Plourde, other recent Atlantic 10 graduates to play post-collegiate professional softball include Brandice Balschmiter (UMass, 2009), Jen Mineau (Fordham, 2012), Christina Sykora (Temple, 2012), Cyndil Matthew (UMass, 2013), and Sarah Prezioso (Temple, 2014).

Prezioso recently completed her rookie season in the NPF with the Pennsylvania Rebellion. The 2014 Temple graduate was a three-time All-Atlantic 10 honoree at shortstop, before playing her senior season in the AAC after Temple switched conferences.

Like Plourde, Prezioso also believes players from the Atlantic 10 and other mid-major conferences don’t receive the respect they rightfully deserve from the softball community.

“Since the A10 isn’t considered a powerhouse conference, a lot of players, like me, have been overlooked,” said the first player in Temple softball history to collect 200 hits. “People think that [we] are only doing well because of the competition we play against.”

Sarah Prezioso smacking a game-winning double for the PA Rebellion off of Keilani Ricketts in July (Courtesy of Katie Roupe).

Sarah Prezioso smacking a game-winning double for the PA Rebellion off of Keilani Ricketts of the USSSA Pride in July. (Courtesy of Katie Roupe)

Prezioso thinks it is the exposure that players from “big time” schools get, and not their talent, which separates them from mid-major players.

“In the NPF there are all the big name players who everyone knows about because they are featured on television,” Prezioso said. “It is such a shame when you play the same level of Division 1 softball and can compete at a high-level in the NPF, but are thought of as a lesser player because of the school you went to and the conference you played in.”

At the center of the issue, Prezioso believes, is the difference in funding between major and mid-major programs.

“Because of how financially well-off some schools are, they have the money to give [scholarships] to high-caliber players and put into their facilities, uniforms, travel, and stadiums,” the former All-Region shortstop said. “Recruits look for these types of things when choosing their schools.”

Plourde firmly believes it will take more than just money and television exposure for the Atlantic 10 and other mid-major conferences to take the next step and gain similar respect as the PAC-12, SEC, and Big 12.

“Winning against the teams with higher rankings and harder schedules is what mid-major conferences need in order to gain the same respect as the powerhouse conferences,” Plourde said. “To be one of the best, you have to play and beat some of the best.”

The 2012 Atlantic 10 Pitcher and Player of the Year speaks from personal experience, after leading UMass to three Top-40 finishes in her four collegiate seasons. Plourde recalls her UMass team from 2009 as an example of mid-major success amongst the nation’s best. That season, UMass took the eventual National Champion Washington Huskies to a third and decisive 15-inning game in the NCAA Regionals, and finished ranked 24th in the country.

Plourde (13) pitching to Lauren Chamberlain of Team USA in 2013 (Courtesy of Team Canada).

Plourde (13) pitching to Lauren Chamberlain of Team USA in 2013. (Courtesy of Team Canada)

“That year, we had fantastic leadership, passion, and chemistry, and although we didn’t win [Regionals], we still sent a message that people have not forgotten today,” Plourde stated. “With the right ingredients, a mid-major school can definitely send a large shock of fear or intimidation across the country.”

A prime example of consistent mid-major softball success is the Louisiana-Lafayette program. The Rajin Cajuns, out of the Sun Belt Conference, have played in six Women’s College World Series since 1993 and are perennially ranked in the Top 25. ULL’s feats demonstrate what a mid-major program can accomplish with a successful formula and winning mentality.

Plourde believes a winning mentality develops from heated rivalries and in-conference battles that prepare players for competition against big name schools. She credits her experiences at UMass against Atlantic 10-rival Fordham as the preparation that was necessary to compete against top-flight teams and players, both in college and professionally.

“People often say about big moments or pressure situations, ‘act like you’ve been there before,’ and because of our A10 rivalry with Fordham, I can actually live that feeling of performing well in high-pressure situations,” Plourde recalled.

Despite being underestimated for having played at mid-major schools, both Plourde and Prezioso have helped legitimize Atlantic 10 softball, while proving their worth on the professional and international stages. Both women have similarly used the underdog role to help propel their professional careers and pave the way for future post-graduate softball success of other mid-major players.

“It takes a lot of work, but having the drive and passion to work hard to play amongst the best in the world, especially after initially being over-looked, can be really rewarding,” Plourde attested. “Is one game going to make mid-major teams and players emerge as dark-horses? No, probably not. But why not keep building on it? It is definitely not out of the question.”