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.”