Sports

Rising team, fallen program

After nearly four decades of sponsoring a varsity softball team, the university will cut the sport from its athletic department this July.

When Joe DiPietro became the coach of La Salle in 2003, the first person who called to congratulate him was Temple head coach Rocci Pignoli.

“I didn’t know him,” said DiPietro, Temple’s current coach. “He just welcomed me to the league. It was funny because he said, ‘I’ll do anything for a fellow Italian.’ I started laughing. I knew I had a friend after that.”

Pignoli, who passed away in 2007, and DiPietro have both left their marks on the history of Temple’s softball program – a program that will end after this season, after the Board of Trustees voted to cut the team in December.

Ronnie’s Team

Temple softball became an intercollegiate sport for the 1975 season. The Owls’ first coach was Veronica “Ronnie” Maurek, also the coach of the women’s basketball team. But after three seasons, Maurek resigned as basketball coach to focus on the softball team.

At the beginning of the Maurek era, the Owls played in the Eastern Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. The team finished first in the EAIAW during the 1978 season. But after the 1982 season, competition from the NCAA caused the EAIAW to fold. Temple immediately moved to the NCAA, joining the Atlantic 10 Conference. The Owls finished the 1983 season with a record of 10-13 – one of the few years that a Maurek squad had a losing season.

Temple had six seasons of 20 or more wins during Maurek’s tenure. In 1989, the team won 31 games – a program record that stood for more than two decades. Maurek was named A-10 Coach of the Year in 1989 in recognition of all her work for the team, including her coaching of Dionna Harris. The second baseman from Wilmington, Del., became a star under Maurek. Harris set Temple’s single-season records for triples, home runs, total bases, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, in addition to being named A-10 Player of the Year. Harris went on to win a gold medal as a starter for the USA’s 1996 Olympic team.

After 17 years at the helm and nine consecutive A-10 tournaments, Maurek (307-221-3) stepped away from Temple following the 1991 season.

Under new coach Carol Kashow, the Owls did not play at the same level they had under Maurek. The team finished with a losing record in all of Kashow’s six seasons, except in 1996. That 1996 season was memorable for Temple, as the team tied its record for wins, finishing 31-20.

The Owls also did well in conference play, and the team finished as the runner-up in the 1997 tournament. Kashow’s squad made the tournament five times. But it was during the season they did not make the tournament, 1995, that the Owls made a coaching move that would shape their future.

Former Owl Kayla Cook (left) looks at an incoming pitch during a 2012 game. | TTN FILE PHOTO

Former Owl Kayla Cook (left) looks at an incoming pitch during a 2012 game. | TTN FILE PHOTO

The Path to 2004

In 1994, Pignoli was coaching at Conestoga High School. He had coached the team for two seasons, and his squad had just won the league title.

Pignoli’s dream was to be a college coach, but when Temple offered him the assistant coaching job for 1995, he was reticent.

“It was a tough decision,” Pignoli said in a 1994 interview with the Inquirer. “It took me a few months to decide. The people at Conestoga were very nice to me.”

But Pignoli decided to accept Temple’s offer, and after three seasons, in 1998, he succeeded Kashow as Temple’s head coach.

Temple struggled in 1998 and 1999, winning only 16 games each season. But then the team began to turn things around. In 2000, Temple made the first of five straight A-10 tournaments and the Owls began to be scheduled against top teams.

“They were one of the teams, when I was at La Salle, that we wanted to be like,” DiPietro said. “When Rocci Pignoli was [there], Temple was playing a big schedule.”

For the 2004 season, the Owls left their home in Temple Stadium to play on Temple’s Ambler Campus.

“I thought [it] was a wonderful idea,” Temple historian and former Ambler Campus dean James Hilty said. “I thought that the presence of the sports teams added immensely to the collegiate life of the campus.”

On April 25, 2004, Temple held the grand opening of the Ambler Softball Field. Harris threw the ceremonial first pitch, and Maurek and Kashow also participated in the ceremony.

That season, Temple softball was in good shape. The Owls had finished the previous season with a record of 22-20 overall, going 10-4 in conference play. The team had also been runner-up in the A-10 tournament. Temple had been the runner-up four times and co-champions once, but the Owls had never been able to be the outright champion.

But Temple went 30-18 in 2004. The Owls won 11 awards, with pitcher Kim Watkins taking four. Watkins was A-10 Pitcher of the Year and was named to the All-Mid-Atlantic Team. Pignoli won A-10 Coach of the Year.

But the biggest moment for the team came on May 15, when it defeated St. Joseph’s University to win the A-10 tournament and clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.

Temple was blanked in its first game at the Tucson, Ariz., regional, but fought off elimination by knocking off UC-Santa Barbara, 3-0. Although the team was eliminated the next day, the 2004 season still stands as one of the softball program’s greatest triumphs.

Pignoli retired after one more season and Casey Dickinson became Temple’s head coach. During her tenure, Adrienne Repsher put together what was possibly the greatest season by an Owl. In 2007, Repsher broke the single-season records for home runs, batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and runs. Repsher also took over the career record for home runs and total bases, and was named the A-10 Softball Player of the Year.

Rising Again

Dickinson lasted only three years as coach, and the team hired DiPietro in July 2008. The team struggled during his first two seasons at the helm, missing the A-10 tournament.

Then in 2010, an event occurred which many argue shaped the team’s future. The administration decided to close the dormitories on the Ambler Campus.

“The central administration decided, without consulting [anyone at] Ambler, to close the dormitories and thus eliminate the center of campus life,” Hilty said. “With the students residing on Main Campus and with [the team’s] training facilities located there, it was argued that traveling to Ambler each day for practices and games was too great a burden to impose on the student-athletes.”

By 2012, attendance at the games had diminished, although the team was consistently improving.

“We don’t really have any student participation at games,” DiPietro said in a 2012 interview with The Temple News. “That makes it kind of hard sometimes.”

Despite this, the Owls revamped their stadium between 2011 and 2012. The team installed a press box, painted the dugouts and amphitheater seating, added bleachers and renamed the venue the Temple Softball Stadium. Much of the renovative work was instigated by DiPietro, current senior catcher/first baseman Stephanie Pasquale said.

Under DiPietro, the team had increased its win total each season heading into 2013. That year the Owls won 32 games, breaking their single-season record.

For the 2014 season, Temple moved most of its sports, including softball, to the American Athletic Conference. But the first season in a new conference will also be its last, after the Board of Trustees’ vote to eliminate the program – along with men’s track & field, baseball and men’s gymnastics.

“Integral to the matter [was] the university’s decision to allow the Ambler Campus to die on the vine,” Hilty said. “I’m afraid that the softball [team was] affected by that decision to de-emphasize the Ambler Campus.”

“I was kind of mad,” Pasquale said. “We all worked to get the program going in the first place, and especially with everything we’ve accomplished in the past two years.”

DiPietro and his current team are frustrated by the university’s decision. But DiPietro is proud of the program’s history, and of what he and his teams have accomplished.

“The program’s been great for a long time,” DiPietro said. “And it makes me feel good that going out, I had the program back to where Rocci had it, when they won the A-10 championship. So it does make me feel good about that at least.”

Don McDermott can be reached at donald.mcdermott@temple.edu. 

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