“Hidden Gems” on the Hardwood Key Fordham’s Recent Success

Stephanie Gaitley. (Courtesy of Geoff Burke)

Stephanie Gaitley. (Courtesy of Geoff Burke)

Like a pirate searching the sea for hidden treasure, Fordham Women’s Basketball head coach Stephanie Gaitley looks high and low to find talented recruits. Unlike a pirate, however, Fordham’s fourth year coach doesn’t find her treasure in the sea, but rather on hardwood courts overseas.

“It’s an untapped market,” Gaitley, the winningest active coach in the Atlantic 10 Conference, said. “We hit heads with every school in the conference for certain kids when we go out recruiting, but when we go overseas, some coaches know nothing about those kids, so they are like hidden gems that you might steal.”

Last season, Gaitley’s gems certainly helped her discover the treasure that she so earnestly sought after: Fordham’s first Atlantic 10 championship and diamond-studded championship rings, to boot.

Gaitley’s championship squad involved three international players, including 2014 graduate and First Team All-Conference selection Erin Rooney (17.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg & 5.2 apg) from Christchurch, New Zealand.

“Erin, who was the best young player in New Zealand, took us to a title, but not a lot of coaches even knew about her,” Gaitley said. “She looked at some west coast schools, but the difference for us was that we went over there and took the time to meet her family.”

With just 18 total international players in the 13-team Atlantic 10 Conference this season – four of which attend Fordham – Gaitley has set a precedent for the rest of the conference to follow by attracting and developing overseas talent.

Gaitley and her coaching mates believe their ability to cultivate bonds with international recruits and their families ultimately aids in their eventual arrivals, and subsequent successes, at Rose Hill.

“For most of the international kids, it’s about relationships,” the 1982 Villanova graduate said. “They want to know that people will care about them, and that if they come over here, they are going to be in good hands.”

While Gaitley and her staff take the time to establish relationships with international recruits during the summer, they have another invaluable element helping their efforts during the recruiting process: New York City.

“I think for the international player, New York is a huge market,” Gaitley stated. “The number one American city they know is New York. So, not only do you have a great city, but you have a beautiful school, with a great academic reputation, and a great basketball conference. And now that we’ve won, we’ve kind of put the whole package together.”

Asnate Fomina (21). (Courtesy of Romualds Vambuts)

Asnate Fomina (21). (Courtesy of Romualds Vambuts)

This package that Gaitley speaks of is what lured Latvian freshman guard Asnate Fomina to Fordham.

“The most important thing was the education,” Fomina said. “Fordham is a good school and the basketball team was conference champions last year, and I liked coach and my teammates, so it was a good decision for me.”

Fomina, a member of the 2013 Latvian National Team at the European Championship, chose the American college experience because it allowed her to pursue both an athletic and academic focus.

“It’s different from Europe to study here because you can be an athlete and a student,” the graduate of Riga Secondary School No. 49 said. “The schools in my country separate athletes and students, so I chose America to be able to do both things.”

Similarly, Slovenian sophomore Alina Gjerkes, a contributing member of Gaitley’s championship squad last season as a freshman (2.5 ppg), saw Fordham as an opportunity to pursue her passions both on the court and in the classroom.

“What attracted me to Fordham was the possibly that I would be able to merge basketball and great academics,” the guard said. “If I stayed back home and wanted to play at a high level, I wouldn’t be able to go to the type of academic school I would want to go to.”

For both Fomina and Gjerkes, the biggest adjustment to life at Fordham wasn’t the language barrier or feeling of homesickness, but rather, the style of play on the basketball court.

“Here, there is more aggressive basketball,” Fomina asserted. “Individually, girls are more aggressive and physically stronger.”

“The American game is way more structured than back home, where we have less plays and the details are not as important,” Gjerkes said. “Everything is way more competitive here because everyone is on scholarship and fighting for positions, so practices are way more intense than what we have back home.”

For Gjerkes, however, a year of college basketball in America has paid dividends athletically, by both increasing her level of play and basketball maturity.

Alina Gjerkes (3). (Courtesy of Richmond.com)

Alina Gjerkes (3). (Courtesy of Richmond.com)

“I think I’ve learned to take instructions better and become a more complete player,” Gjerkes claimed. “I’ve also learned that when you think you can’t go any further, you have to just keep going. I didn’t know that concept before Fordham.”

Gjerkes learned these invaluable lessons in maturity and hard work from Fordham’s aforementioned former-star Erin Rooney.

“Last year in the summer, Erin would say, ‘I know your legs hurt, but they’re not going to fall off and you’re not going to die,’” Gjerkes said. “It made me better.”

Although Gaitley’s international players often encounter a learning curve when they first arrive at Fordham due to the physicality of the American game, they also present more-inclusive skillsets than first-year American college players usually possess.

“The style of play is more physical over here, but I think skill-wise, they come in more versatile because they get taught everything at a young age,” Gaitley said. “Sometimes over here, if you’re big, you stay in the post, if you’re little, you’re a guard. There, they teach them a little of every skill.”

While Gaitley’s quest for international treasure is somewhat uncommon and perhaps even unconventional by women’s college basketball standards today, it has proven to be as edifying for Fordham’s program on the court as it is off of it.

“Just having that diversity on the team and that cultural experience I think broadens the horizons of everyone,” Gaitley said. “It brings a completely different element to our program.”

For Fordham Women’s Basketball, the international treasure chest has proven to house the riches that money can’t buy. And, with Gaitley continuing to steer Fordham’s recruiting ship in the direction of undiscovered players and Atlantic 10 championships, more hidden gems are surely on their way to the Bronx.

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Clinton Creates Winning Culture for Fordham Women’s Soccer

In just one year at the helm of Fordham University’s women’s soccer team, head coach Jessica Clinton has changed the entire complexity of the program. After demonstrating substantial on-field improvements during Clinton’s first season, coupled with a newly established winning mindset, the Rams are primed for great success in upcoming years.

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:

Months Later, Mo’ne Davis’ Impact Persists

Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

(Courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

With the last traces of summer having just been trampled under the feet of trick-or-treaters across the country, Mo’ne Davis’ impact on the sports world is still just as strong as it was in the late-August heat.

The Taney Little League pitching sensation from Philadelphia stunned America with her 70 mile-per-hour fastball at the Little League World Series this past summer, and became the first girl to pitch a complete-game shutout at the annual tournament in Williamsport, Penn. During the 11-day, world-wide competition, the 13-year-old hurler also became the first-ever Little Leaguer (boy or girl) featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

And unlike many of her Little League predecessors, Davis hasn’t fizzled into obscurity with the changing of seasons.

Since Taney’s squad returned home from Williamsport at the end of August, Davis has been on the Tonight Showdonated her jersey to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and threw out the first pitch of Game 4 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals. She is also profiled in Teen Vogue’s November issue, and was recently named by Time magazine as one of the nation’s 25 most influential teens of 2014. Davis is set to receive the Musial Award for extraordinary character later this month at the annual Musial Awards in St. Louis.

Most noticeably, Davis is the subject of Chevrolet’s newest commercial, which first aired on FOX on Oct. 21 during Game 1 of the World Series.

The Spike Lee-directed 60-second spot depicts Davis as America’s daughter; a confident three-sport athlete, who eats pizza, loves her family, and stands for girls who want to play sports with the boys.

The spot ends with the tagline, “Chevrolet celebrates Mo’ne Davis, and those who remind us that anything is possible.”

Davis’ commercial not only keeps her as a mainstay symbol of empowerment for female athletes, but it could also prove to open up doors for college athletes in the future.

Following the release of Chevy’s commercial, the NCAA announced that Davis could profit on her likeness and still be eligible for future participation in college athletics.

NCAA spokeswoman Emily James said in a statement, “This waiver narrowly extends the rules — which allow Davis to accept the payment and still be eligible in any other sport — to include baseball.” James continued, “The NCAA staff also considered the historically limited opportunities for women to participate in professional baseball. In addition, Davis is much younger than when the vast majority of the prospect rules apply.”

While Mo’ne Davis is not yet, and may never be a college athlete, she has cracked open the door for certain unique circumstances to be considered by the NCAA as reason enough to grant compensation to amateur athletes. With the NCAA’s decision, the eighth-grader has inadvertently added to her list of ground-breaking influences on the sports world, in just a matter of months.

For Davis, Chevy’s commercial isn’t just a feel-good ploy to sensationalize her success and stir up some controversy within the NCAA; it is her reality, and it reveals why the pitching star may just emerge as the Billie Jean King of our time. An avant-garde female athlete, if you will.

Sure, there have been several other pioneering female athletes who have come before her, but none have been quite like Mo’ne Davis.

Courtesy of Teen Vogue

(Courtesy of Teen Vogue)

She is talented, poised, and self-assured. She knows what she wants, and she’s not afraid to go get it. She is wise beyond her years, and she has set a trailblazing precedent for other young women to follow.

The combination of these qualities is what has kept, and will continue to keep, Mo’ne Davis relevant long after her team’s elimination from the Little League World Series.

Because, even if Davis doesn’t make the successful transition to a regulation-sized baseball field, or if she is never the point guard for Geno Auriemma’s UCONN Huskies like she hopes to be someday, or if she soon finds another passion that takes her away from sports altogether, her influence on young women will remain revolutionary.

During the Little League World Series, Davis said, “Probably like a couple of years from now, there’ll be a lot of girls here, and then it won’t be just like all boys, so they’ll have to build like another dorm for girls, so it’ll be a huge impact if more girls start playing.”

With Davis as the budding spokeswoman of a new generation of American daughters, young females will follow her lead to defy society’s sports norms and emerge from the shadows of their male counterparts.

And pretty soon, the Mo’ne Davises of the world will be the rule, not the exception.

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.

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.”