Cal U softball coach honored
Ambassador, coach, mentor, trainer and educator.
Those are some of the terms that have been used to describe Cal U softball coach Rick Bertagnolli.
Now, another can be added to the list. Hall of famer.
Bertagnolli was enshrined in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Dec. 6 as part of the NFCA's annual convention.
“It's such an outstanding feeling, there's so many emotions,” Bertagnolli said. “I've spent 30 years coaching a great game and I've been blessed to have coached the athletes that I've had.”
Also enshrined in the class of 2013 were Florida Atlantic's Joan Joyce, Alabama's Patrick Murphy and Minnesota State Mankato's Lori Meyer.
“I said in my speech that it was an absolute honor to go in with the coaches that I did,” Bertagnolli added. “Coach Meyer is a fellow Division II coach and coach Pat Murphy has done so much at Alabama. Then there's the legend that is Joan Joyce and everything she's done. ... It truly is a blessing and an honor.”
Bertagnolli's influence has been felt throughout the national softball community and locally here in the Mon Valley, but nothing compares to the impact he's had on those young women he's coached for the last 20 seasons with the Vulcans.
“First and foremost it's been an amazing experience these past few years and I would have never imagined that this local program would have such an impact on my life,” Breeanna Morris, a junior and Waynesburg native said. “Every day we step onto the field with him we never know what to expect and that's the beauty of it. It's always a big day.
“The expectations of Cal U softball aren't a secret. He has built a program with such a rich tradition that you're expected to fill the shoes before you.”
Natalya Smarra agrees.
“It is a great honor to play for a coach with his stature,” Smarra said of playing for Bertagnolli. “His record on and off the field speaks for itself. He is the main reason that I chose to play at Cal U and I couldn't see myself playing for any other coach. The way he runs his program is equal to if not better than any in the country, or in any division.”
Sharing his knowledge of the sport in the area is something Bertagnolli has prided himself on.
“When I first moved here I lived in Belle Vernon. There was a lot of slow pitch softball,” Bertagnolli said. “I helped a lot of community groups make the transition to fast pitch. I can remember having young players and coaches at my house at the time, going over some drills and some skill work.”
Now softball is one of the fasting growing sports in the area.
Besides winning two national championships with the Vulcans in 1997 and 1998, there are many memories and moments that the coach will never forget.
“It's not the wins, the championships ... but the journey getting there through those 30 years,” he said. “I can remember winning the Illinois state title while at Bunker Hill High School.”
Bunker Hill was Bertagnolli's first head coaching job. A small Class A school in Macoupin County, the journey to that title mirrored the basketball classic, “Hoosiers.”
“It really was like the movie, only softball,” he said with a smile. “We were a bunch of country girls playing against the number one team in the state. They pulled up with three buses followed by a line of cars. I can remember our pitcher, Shelle Wadsworth. Her dad donated a side of beef and we had to go door-to-door selling raffle tickets to win the side of beef, just so we could pay a bus driver to take us to the state championship game.
“We won 2-0. There was never any intimidation there. It was a great learning experience, it was a first for me. They hadn't been beaten in four years and had a bunch of players going to big schools, but they didn't know what they were up against. We were a family. My team now ... we're still a family.”
Haley Bashada, a former Belle Vernon Area standout, is preparing for her sophomore season as a Vulcan.
“From the first time I met him, I knew Coach B was different, and he is unlike any coach I have had before,” the former Lady Leopard said. “He is one of those people you meet once in a lifetime. He's not just a coach, he's a friend and someone I can trust. Coach B will go out of his way to make every girl succeed to the best of her ability on and off the field.
“He's an inspiration because he treats us girls like his family and would do anything for us. A good coach is able to help his team play ball and have a good record. But a great coach, like him, is able to reach deep into our hearts for our love of the game and show us that we play for each other, and this is the power that drives us to become a successful team. He leads us with strong words and crazy ideas, but also with heart and passion for the game we all love.”
Bertagnolli credits his time with legendary Bunker Hill basketball coach, James “Joe” Hlafka, for guiding him to learn how to build a team.
“Making a team is more than just practicing,” the hall of famer said. “A lot of kids in that small town, he took care of. You spend time with your team on and off the field, before and after practice. ... I've carried that all the way through my years.”
Bertagnolli's coaching style has been contagious for those coaching under him.
“This is a well-deserved award,” Cal U assistant coach Stephani Moore said. “He is an amazing coach and he puts his heart and soul into the team. He has helped me become a better coach, mom and person. I am proud to call him my boss and a true friend.”
Bertagnolli said he will take Christmas Eve through Dec. 26 off, then it's right back to it. The Vulcans first official day of practice is Jan. 10, with games beginning in February.
Jeremy Sellew is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2667.