Sports

‘Always going to be my players’

The fifth of a series examining how the athletic cuts have affected the lives of student-athletes and coaches.

There are some things that Joe DiPietro may never get used to.

Near the end of September, as the new head coach for Hampton University’s softball program, DiPietro traveled with the team to the University of Maryland as part of the fall schedule. He saw three players there who, less than a year ago, planned to play for him at Temple.

Catcher Erin Drennan, who spent her freshman year at Temple, and Shelby Stracher, another catcher who DiPietro recruited, ended up at Towson, while pitcher Jaymi Bautista-Geiger transferred to Maryland after originally transferring to Temple before the cuts.

When Bautista-Gieger was on the mound, DiPietro caught himself commenting on her pitching, thinking, “Oh boy, I better not say anything.”

Seeing these players in different uniforms, he admitted, was a bit awkward. He still saw them as his own.

“When I looked at them, I still looked at them as my players,” DiPietro said. “You spend time with all these kids. You recruit them, you get them to believe in you, and a school that you think is a great place for them to be and continue their education. And then what happened to them happened to them.

“It’s tough. They’re always going to be my players, regardless of who they’re playing for,” DiPietro added.

The elimination of the softball program, along with baseball,  men’s indoor and outdoor track & field and men’s gymnastics in a move that was announced without warning last December, is a day that is still fresh in DiPietro’s mind.

He had no idea the cuts were coming, and while he said he couldn’t speak for other coaches, DiPietro knew the answer was still the same.

“There was no inkling,” DiPietro said. “I didn’t hear any talk amongst the other coaches that they were going to be cut, or if an administrator slipped and said, ‘Hey, you know there may be some cuts coming.’ We didn’t know anything about it until it happened.”

The cuts were a move that still leave DiPietro puzzled.

Prior to its last season, the team had improved its win total every year for the last five years, setting a new single-season wins record in 2013 with 32.

The team also made improvements to its stadium at Ambler Campus in 2011 and 2012, adding a press box, new dugouts and seating, windscreens and netting behind home plate, which was all afforded through fundraising, DiPietro said.

As far as the commute to Ambler, DiPietro said that was never a problem for his team. His team travelled often anyway, he said.

“It’s funny, because I remember part of the reasoning for the cuts was student-athlete welfare,” DiPietro said. “About being on a bus and going out there, and going on a bus all the way back and how long it took and all this other stuff. But the thing that bothered me with that was no one asked the teams that were involved. No one sat down with the teams and said, ‘Look, how much of a struggle is this for you?’”

Following the cuts, the university’s athletic administration has made plans to relocate all teams currently situated at Ambler Campus closer to Main Campus, announcing William Penn as the new home for the soccer teams in addition to track & field.

When the players returned from winter break, DiPietro saw a shaken bunch. In 12 years as a collegiate head coach, he said he had never seen a team as close as the program’s last one.

“It was more than just a team,” DiPietro said. “If you talk to any of the girls, they will tell you that they’re all best friends. That was the thing that made it even worse, was the fact that our kids were all best friends. They weren’t just teammates, they hung out together all the time, and we had kids from all over the country.”

DiPietro added that if the team’s chemistry and dynamic wasn’t as good as it was, the cuts may not have stung as badly. But heading into the team’s final season, chemistry could only carry the team so far.

The team finished with a 15-30 record, a result that DiPietro saw coming from the first tournament at Tennessee State.

“You could just tell body language-wise, they had a hard time playing for the name on the front of their shirt,” he said.

DiPietro received a phone call from Hampton toward the end of the summer. Michael Pelegrino, who served as the Pirates’ interim head coach last season, had him down as one of his references.

He thought it was a call for a recommendation to keep Pelegrino as coach. But to his surprise, it was a job offer.

There was some initial hesitance, DiPietro said. A resident of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, he also had an offer to be an assistant coach at St. John’s in New York, which would have allowed him to be closer to his family.

DiPietro ultimately opted for the Virginia school, and another shot at a head coaching job.

Nick Tricome can be reached at nick.tricome@temple.edu and on twitter @itssnick215

 

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