Sports

When Duke started a softball team, they brought in a coach with a vision

Marissa Young pitches during her time at Michigan. As a pitcher at Michigan, she was a three-time All-American, the Big Ten pitcher of the year (2002) and player of the year (2003) in her final season. She left Michigan as the program’s all-time strikeout leader (927).
Marissa Young pitches during her time at Michigan. As a pitcher at Michigan, she was a three-time All-American, the Big Ten pitcher of the year (2002) and player of the year (2003) in her final season. She left Michigan as the program’s all-time strikeout leader (927). Michigan Athletic Communications

Specifics vary, but the ritual endures. Hire a new coach and, after everyone praises everyone else on the podium at the introductory press conference, talk eventually turns to “changing the culture,” adjusting behavior to fit altered standards. In college this is accompanied by freshened enthusiasm or by returning players transferring to other schools, looking for what they believe will be a better fit.

Then, once in a long while, a coach gets to start the way Marissa Young did.

The wrappings hadn’t even come off the Duke softball program, the first women’s sport added at the school in some 20 years, when Young was hired in July 2015. Duke already was far behind its nearest neighbors: North Carolina started playing fast-pitch women’s softball in 1984 (there is no NCAA men’s version), N.C. State in 2004.

Next year Clemson plans to launch a team, leaving only Miami and Wake Forest without a Title IX-satisfying representative in the ACC’s well-regarded softball circuit.

Young,Marissa_mug
Marissa Young Jon Gardiner Duke Photography

Duke’s program eventually set up shop in an unobtrusive corner of its East Campus, where the main quad incorporates an old horse-racing track. The front entrance of the former women’s college is guarded by a statue of a seated Washington Duke, the tobacco magnate who paid to rename Trinity College after his family and himself.

Last season six recruits enrolled at Duke, working out with coaches. This season the full complement of Blue Devils took possession of a sparklingly new, $8.8 million natural-turf stadium complete with indoor workout facility, locker and conference rooms, and wrought iron decorative fencing near the seating area. The team went 17-7 at the facility that cries out to have its naming rights sold, too.

The Blue Devils’ 2018 performance exceeded expectations; league coaches picked them last of 12 ACC teams, a prediction that elicits a satisfied chuckle from Young. Instead Duke finished seventh, with a 29-27 record after a season-ending loss in the conference tournament last week at Atlanta.

“I’ve said from day one, I came here not to start a program, but to start a winning program,” Young says. And, of course,“to build the right culture.”

The new stadium, which seats 500, is the most visible of an array of strengths and choices that allowed Young to shape every aspect of her program. She spent time meeting with Duke coaching colleagues to get a feel for navigating the private university, and with program-starters at schools as diverse as South Dakota State and Louisville to learn from their experiences.

“I think it’s important to have a clear vision of what you want right from the start and don’t compromise on those things regardless of how out of reach it may seem, or how many challenges are in front of you,” she says. “Stay the course. Stick to your guns.”

RAL.marissa
Marissa Young pitches during her time at Michigan. As a pitcher at Michigan, she was a three-time All-American, the Big Ten pitcher of the year (2002) and player of the year (2003) in her final season. She left Michigan as the program’s all-time strikeout leader (927). Michigan Athletic Communications

Young picked her entire support staff from publicist to trainer, academic coordinator to strength and conditioning coach, to assistants in the dugout.

“Really it’s a lot of people that have to come together and get on the same page very quickly,” she says. “Everybody was new. It wasn’t like anybody had Duke figured out or had done this softball thing.”

Actually, the even-tempered Young, 36, has been doing the softball thing for much of her life – growing up in Santa Ana, California, and later as a three-time All-American at Michigan and the 2003 Big Ten player of the year. She left Ann Arbor owning the Wolverine record for career strikeouts, firing the customary yellow ball from inside “the circle,” softball patois for the pitcher’s mound. Later she played softball professionally, was a successful head coach at an NAIA school in Ann Arbor, and spent two years as an assistant to Donna Papa at Chapel Hill before taking the job in Durham.

Five Papa protégés are currently head coaches, including Young, whom the 33-year UNC veteran praised via e-mail for personal organization, “calm in high pressure situations,” effective work guiding pitchers, and ability to balance home and job responsibilities.

Young, the mother of three, saw a jump to Duke and the ACC as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I didn’t want to bounce all around the country while I worked my way up the ladder,” she says.

From the first, Young wielded a well-worn coaching inducement, offering recruits the opportunity to start a new tradition, in this case a statement less hyperbole than fact. Early recruits encountered a stadium that was a construction site, the roster a blank slate.

Scholarships were limited to four, apportioned among 17 roster members based on talent, ability to pay and other factors – a customary balancing act for a coach of an Olympic sport.

“It’s a matter of managing your personnel because you don’t want people to feel like the scholarship is how you value them,” Young observes. Well-financed Duke promised to increase the grants-in-aid within four seasons to the maximum dozen allowed.

“It really took a lot of courage on our kids’ part to want to come here and buy in to being the first, and starting a program from scratch, being a pioneer,” Young says. A dozen players this season were freshmen, including fellow Californian Amelia Wiercioch. Joining a program devoid of history “just seemed completely normal to me because I had nothing else to compare it to,” the upbeat Wiercioch says.

Among Young’s first group of recruits was All-ACC sophomore Raine Wilson, who led the squad with a .371 batting average. Two rookies made the ACC’s all-freshman team. “It’s been really amazing to be the first team and kind of setting that standard,” offers Wiercioch, a pitcher with a 1.95 ERA in 42 appearances. “(We) use our youth to our advantage…Having everyone kind of in the same rank has been a really good thing.”

Harnessing the advantages of youth wasn’t restricted to team members. “One of my favorite things,” says Young, “I’ll be in the middle of the game calling pitches or writing on a chart, and my son (Kayden, age seven) without fail will come running into the dugout, give me a big hug and say “Hi!” and move on.”

Just for fun, contemplate similar informality occurring in the high-profile sports formerly called “revenue-producing,” basketball and football.

Duke basketball walk-on Brennan Besser will bike, run and walk across the country this summer to raise awareness and donations for the intellectual and developmental disability (IDD) community. Besser's older sister is IDD.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

  Comments