At NCAA softball tournament, dugouts full of people living double lives

Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts is a coach by spring and international pitching star by summer. Courtesy Oklahoma

When Cat Osterman decided to make a comeback and try to make Team USA's softball roster for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, she wasn't out on an island. She had been retired from pitching for nearly four years, but Osterman had access to Division I softball facilities because she is the associate head coach for Texas State University. There's a bullpen she can throw in every day and enclosed cages, and as an added bonus, the trainer who worked with her for the final three years of her professional career now is employed at Texas State.

"If that piece had been missing, I'm not sure I would have made the decision to play again," Osterman said of the setup at Texas State.

Dotted across NCAA softball staffs are former collegiate greats and current stars of the professional and international games. They are assistant coaches, volunteer assistant coaches and graduate student managers.

Over the next three weeks of the NCAA tournament, you might notice Keilani Ricketts, one of the best pitchers in Oklahoma history and Osterman's teammate with Team USA, in the Sooners dugout. At Auburn, you could spot Emily Carosone, who hit a walk-off grand slam for the Tigers in the 2016 Women's College World Series and now stars in National Pro Fastpitch. At Northwestern, you might recognize Courtney Gano, who has starred for both Team USA and the NPF's Chicago Bandits since graduating from Washington.

In most sports, coaching is a career path players pursue when their playing days are over. In softball, it's all done at once.

Four-time Michigan All-American Sierra Romero of the USSSA Pride spent the season as a volunteer assistant coach at Oregon. This time last year, Gwen Svekis was the catcher for Pac-12 champion Oregon in the Women's College World Series; this year, she was a graduate student manager at Indiana. All-time Utah great Hannah Flippen, now with the Chicago Bandits, serves as Utah's assistant coach.

Some are interested in coaching as a career after their professional playing days are over. Others are there to stay in shape for NPF season in the summer. All of them love the game and are trying to find a financially sustainable way to stay in the game they love.

Ricketts came back from Japan last year knowing she wasn't going back. She had married Sean Tumanuvao in December 2017, and a long-distance marriage wasn't going to work for her. She wanted to be home. But she also wanted to make a run for the 2020 Olympic team and stay active in the sport. She had been on the Mississippi State staff as a volunteer assistant coach during the 2016 season and enjoyed that experience. So, she called Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso to see if there was room for her at her alma mater.

"Oklahoma is like home for me," Ricketts said. "Coming into it, I wanted to train with the girls, but it's morphed into me learning from them."

"A lot of us can't afford to keep playing without another job on the side." Cat Osterman

Gasso sees it as a win-win.

"Keilani and [graduate student manager] Delanie [Gourley] bring many advantages to our team," Gasso said. "They bring experience and knowledge, they are age relatable and both can throw a solid batting practice as well as challenge us on the mound. But most of all, they bring confidence, and our team feeds off of that."

Softball coaching staffs are limited to two paid assistant coaching positions. With many teams comprised of 20 or more players, a head coach with two assistants isn't enough for high-quality instruction. In contrast, collegiate basketball staffs are allowed three paid assistants for 15-player teams. Volunteer assistant coaches and graduate student managers are vital staff members who fill the gaps in softball.

A volunteer assistant coach is an unpaid position, but the assistant also is allowed access to facilities, travels with the team and does serve as that third coach. Many volunteer coaches are like Romero and Ricketts -- younger, former collegiate standouts and current professional players who are considering coaching as a paying job.

"I enjoy working with athletes, in general, but I was really looking forward to working with Division I athletes and watching them grow," Romero said. "I wanted to see if I could make them better and help them excel and succeed."

A graduate student manager is not a coach. These staff members can still hit balls and catch, but they cannot provide feedback directly to players. They also are graduate students pursuing a degree and receive tuition assistance and a stipend. Svekis is studying athletics administration at Indiana.

"It's a really good deal," Svekis said.

Many active players who pursue coaching positions do so out of a love for the game -- and also in pursuit of fiscal sustainability. Most players aren't paid enough as professional athletes to make ends meet in the offseason. The average annual salary in NPF last season was $6,600. Of course, volunteer coaches aren't paid positions, so some of them also have side gigs. Romero maintains a number or sponsorship obligations, and Ricketts continues to run her own camps and clinics.

"A lot of us can't afford to keep playing without another job on the side. The one job that goes with our schedule is teaching or coaching," Osterman said. "It's the easiest job to do and not have to wonder every year if you're going to have to give up playing. It's the result of the fact that we really can't make a living off of what we make playing professionally or with the national team."

The importance of having the ability to train for professional competition at work cannot be overstated. Batting cages, pitching and hitting coaches, access to a high-quality field and the availability of athletic training staff are all things that would be difficult to come by for Osterman, Ricketts, Romero and Svekis.

"I throw every day, which is nice, because my arm would be super out of shape going into the season," Svekis said. "It's kept it so that everything is functioning in the right direction."

But it's not just the ability to physically train that is helpful; it's the total immersion in the game. The mental growth while being on a staff is just as valuable as being able to squeeze in an extra session with the pitching coach.

"You see so much more when you're on the coaching side," Svekis said. "I see the game in so many different dimensions now, and I'm excited to play the pro season with all of that knowledge."