Program springs to life in Chicago
CHICAGO -- Give this to Chicago traffic; it does allow a person time to get to know her traveling companions.
Whether cruising along Midwestern roads on the way to and from games or, just as often, sitting in rush-hour gridlock on the way back to the school's downtown campus after practices at a home stadium located several miles away in the shadow of O'Hare International Airport, Roosevelt University players and coaches had plenty of time to get to know each other a season ago, the first in which the school, nearing its 70th anniversary, fielded a softball team.
Given ample opportunity to interrogate their coaches, including head coach Amanda Scott, the players quickly zeroed in on the important parts of their résumés.
"Amanda kind of knew Jennie Finch," junior Amelia Enberg marveled. "It was kind of crazy."
Never mind that a year before Finch arrived at the University of Arizona, Scott pitched Fresno State past that school in the championship game of the 1998 Women's College World Series. Then a sophomore, she was named the Most Outstanding Player in that tournament, a shutout against Arizona buttressed by a no-hitter against Michigan, among other gems. Two years later, she was an alternate on the United States team that won Olympic gold in Sydney. And in 2004, she led National Pro Fastpitch with both 15 wins and a 0.89 ERA for the New York/New Jersey Juggernaut.
To some of her players, such things are ancient history. Knowing Finch? That is big time.
Which is just fine by Scott, all things considered. If big time mattered to her, she wouldn't be trying to build a program from the ground up at a school whose primary campus rises 32 stories toward the skyline in one of America's biggest cities. Along with assistant coaches Lauren Lappin and Jenn Salling, both former All-Americans, Olympians (Lappin for the United States, Salling for Canada) and current NPF standouts, she swapped big time for the obscurity of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, which exists in the substantial shadow cast by the NCAA.
In the heart of Chicago's downtown Loop, as "L" trains rumble by on elevated tracks and next to no one notices, one of the most accomplished coaching staffs in softball goes about trying to prove college sports don't need to be big to be worth the effort. You could call it a grassroots effort if there wasn't so much concrete and steel in the way.
Building community through athletics
University president Charles Middleton was no stranger to college athletics on a slightly different scale when he arrived at Roosevelt in 2002. Past stops in his academic career left him a supporter of both Florida State football and Duke basketball. Still, sports weren't on his agenda when he took over at Roosevelt, which eliminated its men's athletic programs after the 1988-89 academic year and had never fielded women's teams since it was founded in 1945. But as the school grew and added more full-time students of traditional college age in the years that followed, Middleton heard more and more from them that the lack of athletics was an impediment to developing a university community.
Sports aren't more important than academics, but it's difficult for a sociology major and a biology major to bond over cheering for the history department.
"I think athletics is actually, if it doesn't get to where it's running the show, is an important ingredient in the American higher-education landscape," Middleton said.
That is a contested point in this day and age, both on its own merits and with respect to the degree that athletics do run the show at big schools. Spelman College received plenty of attention a year ago when the Atlanta school eliminated its athletic program in favor of an expanded fitness program for the entire student body. Roosevelt went the other way. With the understanding that an athletic program wouldn't be subsidized by academic money and could be at least revenue-neutral, the school in 2010 reinstated men's athletics and added women's athletics for the first time.
"We're trying to have a holistic experience for the students," Middleton said. "The institutions that have that as their primary goal are remembering that athletes come at different levels of talent, but at the end they wisely understand that they've got to do something with the next 70 or 80 years of their life.
"And it's not going to be playing whatever sport or sports they're good at. So they need an education."
First, they needed a coach.
Scott never planned on coaching when she finished pitching, certainly not, as a California native, in a place with winters like those in the Windy City. But an opportunity to be an assistant at Michigan State led to one at Iowa, which led to one at Illinois-Chicago. At some point, a job stops being a job and becomes a career. When the former sports information director at UIC, Mike Cassidy, was named as Roosevelt's first athletic director, she reached out to him about the head-coaching vacancy.
"I was completely intrigued by starting something from scratch," Scott said. "I mean, a little intimidated, but I always tell the girls that rarely in your life, no matter what the area, do you get to start something from scratch. Typically we're coming in and immersing in a culture or trying to change a culture or something like that. But to start something from scratch I thought was a pretty intriguing challenge."
Intriguing and closer to impossible than might be comfortable for most first-time coaches. The school's return to the playing fields was staggered over four years, with softball among the sports slated to begin play in 2013. So from the time Scott was hired in the early fall of 2011 until the start of the following school year, she was the entirety of the softball program, alone without players or assistants. She didn't have scholarships to offer recruits, didn't even know for sure where the team would play.
Her younger sister Courtney is an assistant coach at the University of Louisville, and Amanda one day asked in passing about where her sister had procured a certain type of bag tag. Courtney told her just to ask the equipment guy at Roosevelt.
"I am the equipment guy," Scott thought to herself. "I'm the field guy, I'm the transportation guy, I'm the financial aid counselor. All of those things.
"It at times just really felt like a process of survival -- stay on top of the water, keep afloat, keep afloat."
Among her biggest fears during that long waiting period was that the time to start practicing would arrive and she wouldn't have enough players to put on the field. She found enough who were willing to listen to what was half recruiting pitch and half plea: Please come here. She also recruited a world-class staff, beginning a season ago with Lappin, whom she knew from their youth in California. This season she added Salling, who plays with Lappin for the NPF's USSSA Pride (the two essentially split one part-time assistant's position when it comes to the budget). It is an unusual mix, a roster of almost entirely freshmen and sophomores from various places in Illinois and nearby communities in Indiana and Michigan, and coaches with college and professional national championships and Olympic medals.
"From [No.] 1 to 19 or 20 on our roster, there is a different level of commitment, for sure -- there is a wider gap than you would have at a Pac-12 or SEC school or Division I top-level program," Lappin said. "But I would say the kids that are in it are in it. And they just didn't have the coaching when they were younger, maybe didn't have the same athletic potential that a lot of D-I kids have. A handful of them just slipped through the cracks and could compete at a Division I school across the country."
A sense of belonging
That could be someone like Morgan Vogt, now a sophomore and both the team's leading hitter and the ace of the pitching staff -- even if Scott had to talk her into pitching a season ago. She could have played at an NCAA Division III school, perhaps even higher than that, but the chance to go to school in the middle of downtown Chicago and have an experience where softball wasn't necessarily her first, second and third priority appealed to her. It could also be someone like Enberg, the one who was so impressed that her coach "kind of knew" Finch. She is one of just two juniors on the team (there are no seniors) and the only one who attended Roosevelt in 2011-12, the final year before there was a softball team.
Enberg played in high school, of course, but when it came to college, she didn't really think she was good enough to play at a higher level. Roosevelt made sense not because it had a softball program in the works but because with the academic scholarship the school offered, it was a better deal than even in-state tuition at Michigan State. She never expected to miss softball as much as she did. When Scott held tryouts to find more bodies before the start of the first season, Enberg made an impression as much for how badly she wanted to play as how well she played.
"I just feel like I have more of a sense of belonging," Enberg said. "Before I played softball I did a lot of different things. I spread myself out really far. I would do this student organization and be involved in this club, just kind of finding where I fit. I feel like with softball I have my teammates, I have my softball family. I get to represent Roosevelt with the jersey and everything. I feel more at home."
Does someone like Enberg take softball as seriously as someone at one of the alma maters of her coaches, where a scholarship is sometimes the end result of a plan years in the making? That's difficult to say. She almost surely isn't asked to devote as many hours to her craft as those players are. But those players also don't have to get on the Blue Line train every week and try to knock out an hour of schoolwork while wearing practice gear among commuters. A charter bus takes Roosevelt players to the Ballpark at Rosemont, the stadium they share with the NPF's Chicago Bandits, a couple of times a week for outdoor practice, but Enberg needed to take an honors English class that was offered only in the spring and only at a time that conflicted with the start of practice.
She isn't a starter, isn't a run producer or a base stealer. She's just part of the team. So she gets on the train and heads to practice on her own.
"In all honesty, one of the things that is so refreshing being at this level is they're not entitled," Salling said. "They have pride in their own way, they have their egos in their own way, but it's really refreshing as a coach and still as a current player. It's a new perspective, and it's one of the greatest perspectives I have ever seen. They view it in such a different way and, in my opinion, a way that an experience should be viewed because there is so much more to life than just the game. They have so much fun."
Scott, Lappin and Salling played the game at its highest collegiate, professional and international levels. That they all now find themselves here suggests those aren't the only levels at which the game matters.