Softball coaches finding keys to championship success
Riverside softball coach Pam McCarty didn't miss a beat when asked the secret to building a winning program.
“If you surround yourself with the right people,” McCarty said, “success will come your way.”
There's plenty of reasons to trust the 26-year veteran coach. Riverside has won three WPIAL Class AA titles in the past six seasons, giving McCarty six in her coaching career.
Surrounding herself with the right coaching staff has always been McCarty's top priority. She has spent the last 17 years coaching with her husband, Paul, and was joined by assistant coach Glenn Fritz for the last 11.
“We have always had things that each of us do, and it's been automatic,” McCarty said. “We don't step on each other's toes. One thing we've always agreed on is that if one of us tells a girl something, we all have to tell her the same thing.”
Riverside isn't the only perennial WPIAL contender that has emerged in recent years, though, and McCarty's path is far from the only one to success.
Chartiers-Houston won five titles in the past nine years in Class A and is now playing in AA. Montour has won two Class AAA titles since 2010. Neshannock claimed the PIAA Class AA title in 2012 before taking home the WPIAL Class A crown last season. Deer Lakes has been to the past two WPIAL Class AA championships, winning in 2012, and is poised to make a third straight appearance.
Canon-McMillan is the model program in Class AAAA, having won back-to-back WPIAL championships. Coach Michele Moeller said that Steve Moskal and his involvement with the Canonsburg Lady Knights travel program is the biggest reason for the team's success.
The importance of playing softball year-round has become increasingly apparent, as most of the freshmen who have made the varsity squad in recent years have been travel-ball players, Moeller said.
For a school such as Neshannock, which doesn't have a junior high or JV program, being involved in the coaching side of travel leagues is even more important.
Specifically, coach Tracy Kimmel uses travel teams to scout pitchers who may eventually attend Neshannock, he said.
“We try to go six years out as far as pitching goes, and take a look at those kids to see if they'd be one to stick with it,” Kimmel said.
“The girls are better hitters today. They're stronger and the technique is better than five or six years ago, but it still comes down to pitching.”
Montour coach Sarah Capp has been creative in the process of reaching out to younger girls, holding a clinic each year in which varsity players act as skills coaches for the middle school attendees.
“They see these girls are successful, and the younger girls can't wait to get there. When they finally do, they can't wait to keep that going,” Capp said. “When they get to their freshman year, they're ready to go.”
Exposing players to the culture of the varsity level before they arrive has paid dividends for several coaches.
“You can see it with the freshmen that have moved in the last couple of years,” Kimmel said. “They realize that it's just really hard to play on this team. The expectations aren't that big for them, but little by little they get better.”
Kimmel said he has always looked up to McCarty and the standard she has set for Riverside players, especially the commitment level that is required of them.
“We've been in the gym for a month already,” said McCarty of her Riverside players. “We don't give them time off. These kids know that when they play for us, they're going to practice five days a week.”
Setting goals has also been a fixture of any team playing for McCarty.
“My first practice, I say to the kids, ‘Set yourself goals. My goal every year is to win the section, win the WPIAL and go to states,' ” McCarty said. “ ‘Your goals don't have to be the same, but set yourself goals.' ”
But putting such a demand on a team of teenage girls hasn't worked for everyone.
Moeller learned a lot during 2007-2010 — when her Canon-McMillan team was a combined 11-55.
“The longer I've gotten into this, the more I've realized each of these groups is different,” Moeller said. “I've actually found that even during the season you've got to have a good read of when your players need a day off. When I was younger, I missed some of those signs.”
Deer Lakes coach Craig Taliani also has found success with a less intense approach than McCarty and Kimmel. While his girls still set individual goals, the team goals have been less cut and dry.
“As a team, we talk about the importance of working hard and where we want to end up at the end of the season,” Taliani said. “But it's not like it's do or die to win a championship. That's a lot of pressure on these girls who have enough pressure already.”
As integral as hard work and player development will always be to sustainable success, sometimes there's nothing better than a good run of talent.
“The girls coming in at 14 or 15 years old, if they have it, they have it,” Capp said. “You can definitely build upon talent, but it's nice when you see girls that have that raw talent, and there's not a lot you have to do to get them ready for the varsity level.”
Sometimes talent finds ways to add to itself, Taliani said.
“You've got to have the good players to start with,” Taliani said. “I think the success that we've been able to build here has kept them coming through each of the past three years.”
When it comes down to it, winning has to start somewhere, but it can be highly contagious.
Three freshmen started for the Neshannock team that won the 2012 state title. Now juniors, those same players have been able to sustain a winning culture as the core of the current team.
“Something can be said for that, too,” Kimmel said. “You can get in that losing mode, and it's hard to break that. You have to learn how to win games.”
Gary Horvath is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.