Although at the helm from inside the dugout, softball head coach Paige Smith wants to storm the field for a championship just as much as her players.
Coming off a campaign where the softball program missed the Big East playoffs by .003 of winning percentage, the canceled season due to COVID-19 diminished the potential of a banner year for her players.
Having to ditch the tactics she had been planning since the beginning of the off-season, Smith had to use the remainder of the 2020 school year with her empathetic voice rather than determining pitching changes.
“You have a choice,” Smith said. “We got handed a terrible situation, and you can frame it in lots of different ways, and I think it is very hard. You want to respect the people who need time, but you want to be there for the people who look forward, too. All these different things you are doing, but I am hoping we can help [the seniors] in any direction they go.”
Despite an unfinished season, Smith still did her part in guiding seniors, even holding a Zoom meeting for seniors to understand how to separate themselves in the job market among other activities to prepare her seniors for after-college reality.
Yet, as these seniors depart in never-before-seen circumstances, Smith learned more on how to develop her locker room culture during the pandemic, especially after seeing the building tension the situation had on her veterans.
“I think the sophomores and juniors have to take on a lot of the leadership roles because the seniors have the added stress of having to find a job after school and all these different things that are pulling you,” Smith said. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, I would love to win the Big East, but I also have to find a way to purchase my first car.’”
The softball team has done this by implementing a “crew system,” as Smith puts it, where coaches created four groups within the unit so they can all feel comfortable with each other.
The baseball team under head coach Rob Sheppard has done similar activities during their summer training. The program has divided its players into groups relating to their grades and positions as well. This has allowed for more effective communication over Zoom meetings for the team instead of constant calls with 40+ players.
Yet, even with similar facets of communication, Sheppard wants his leadership to still come from the players who have been around longest, which will be the four graduate-students returning for a fifth season of baseball.
“I would anticipate [the seniors coming back to be the leaders]. They were our ‘leaders’ this past year, and they are coming back for a fifth year,” Sheppard said.” “With that, you have some responsibility to your teammates and understand you have been there before.
“In the summer, it is hard to keep that leadership on top of players while being separated, especially with the conditions presented by the coronavirus. But, when autumn arrives and both programs may be able to practice together again, it will show which athletes have been working on their game the most.
“You get to this level and most of the athletes know what they have to do,” Sheppard said. “That is part of the recruiting process, you make sure you are getting student-athletes who are going to be committed academically and athletically. You do not necessarily have to babysit them. They are young adults; they know the opportunity that they have, and they work hard at it.
“I think the biggest thing is the athletes know they have a responsibility to their teammates to work hard.”
Smith does not worry either, as she instills a certain philosophy to her players: “Accountability shows when they come back.”
Robert Fallo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.