April 5, 2012
One of the inherent appeals of sport is its transparency.
Put simply, numbers matter.
They have meaning on the scoreboard, of course, as well as inside the classroom. For those seeking a quick summary of a team's abilities, they offer an instant snapshot.
And some figures, by their very magnitude, still manage to stand out in a sports age so often overwhelmed by them.
Mention 700 to a Philadelphian and their mind is likely to flash back to a section of rowdy fans in the upper levels of the Vet.
At Villanova these days, the 700 plateau stands as a reminder of what passion, spirit and commitment from hundreds of student-athletes across nearly three decades can accomplish.
On March 9th, a 2-1 Villanova victory over USC Upstate was the 700th in program history. It was also win No. 700 for head coach Maria DiBernardi, the only coach the program has known. It came in the midst of what has been a rewarding spring to date as the Wildcats have amassed a 25-9 record midway through the season.
"As much as I had hoped that we could do this last year," says DiBernardi, now 716-586-10 in 28 seasons, "the determination and commitment of our senior class this year has made this that much sweeter."
Truth be told, the 2011 campaign was one of the more challenging ones in recent memory for a program that has known ample success (seasons of 40 or more victories in 1999, 2001, and 2002 along with 60 All-BIG EAST Conference individual player selections among other highlights). The Wildcats' roster was a young one and the schedule imposing - 16 times they faced a team ranked nationally. In the end, there were 11 losses by one run and it would have been easy for a sense of frustration to kick in.
DiBernardi, a standout pitcher in her playing days who was named to the Norristown All-Time Team for the 20th Century, coached her first game at Villanova in 1985. She has learned to endure the natural ebb and flow that comes while teaching at the college level.
"With any new coach coming in you try to tell them, `just hang in there in the beginning. It takes four years to build your team,'" says DiBernardi. "You have to stay positive and keep the kids positive. As bad as our season was last year, it didn't feel like a losing season. It looked like it on paper but the kids worked hard, never gave up. That gave me hope for this year.
"We stuck together through thick and thin. That's just the nature of coaching. You are going to have downs and hopefully you have more ups than downs."
Some of those downs came not long after DiBernardi was placed in charge of the Wildcats. Building a program from the ground up is a daunting task at any time but this was especially true in the mid-1980s when the impact of Title IX legislation was only starting to take root.
DiBernardi doesn't recall much about win No. 1 but she does have vivid memories of starting from scratch.
"It was extremely challenging," recalls DiBernardi. "We had kids that wanted to play softball but the challenge was we didn't have scholarships for the first 13 years I was here. It was challenging just to have the kids come out and dedicate themselves to playing softball. There was a lot of, `oh, I have to go here or I have to go there.'"
Those dark days included a 10-22 campaign in 1986 and a 9-win season in 1988. DiBernardi, still an active pitcher on the fast-pitch circuit at the time and a full-time nurse off it who also was raising a young daughter (Deanna), had more than a few moments where she openly wondered about the future of this part-time coaching gig.
"I honestly never thought I was going to make it to my third season," she says. "If it wasn't for my assistant coach pushing me through those years, I'm not sure how it would have turned out."
Linda Goss was that assistant coach and through the first two decades plus of the program's history she played a vital role in its growth.
"She was always encouraging me to hang in there," recalls DiBernardi. "When you walk into something like this when I did, you just don't realize the whole recruiting process and what goes into building a program. I wanted to see this through - I just wasn't sure how long it would be."
DiBernardi credits the VU athletics administration of those early years with understanding the scope of the task at hand. That group included athletics directors Ted Aceto and Gene DeFillippo in the 1980s and `90s, along with then senior women's administrator Mary Anne Dowling.
"They were patient in the process," she says. "The administration was very supportive of what we were doing."
That working relationship has continued with current Director of Athletics Vince Nicastro and Senior Associate Athletics Director/S.W.A. Lynn Tighe.
"Every coach has their ups and downs, be it with an individual kid or a parent," notes DiBernardi. "Mary Anne hired me and was always supportive. If you needed advice or just someone to have your back, she was there. I have found that has carried over to Lynn and Vince. It's really important. They give you enough leeway to do your job and they are there if you need them."
As an accomplished pitcher herself, DiBernardi understood the value of having a couple of stalwarts to lead a staff. Landing those kinds of pitchers, though, was a tall order given that there wasn't much to offer in the way of financial assistance to prospective student-athletes.
"I was teaching Linda to pitch, teaching anybody who could throw how to pitch," she says with a laugh.
The addition of Amy Meissinger to the pitching roster in the 1990s was one step forward. Another came in 1995, when women's basketball coach Harry Perretta - who in 2011-12 passed a coaching milestone of his own with career win No. 600 - offered the softball program the use of a partial scholarship that helped DiBernardi land Tina Sabunas, another exceptional pitcher who ranks third on the school's all-time wins list (65). By 1998, the scholarship allotment increased substantially, DiBernardi's position became full-time and progress came quickly thereafter.
"Now, I thought, we can really do something," DiBernardi noted.
From 1998-2003, Villanova was one of the BIG EAST's most potent outfits with stellar pitching, timely hitting and dependable defense. The `Cats were 236-88 in that span, including a 45-win campaign in 2002. Those lineups included the school's all-time hits leader Jackie Pasquerella (1998-01); its all-time wins leaders Keri Stoller (1998-01) and Shannon Williams (2002-05); career earned run average leader Theresa Hornick (2000-03); and career doubles leader Megan O'Leary (1997-2000).
At the top of the order from 1998-2000 stood a Wildcat who in some ways represented a bridge to the past and future. Mia Brickhouse was a native of Philadelphia. Like many of her predecessors she was an eager but unpolished athlete in search of softball nuance. But her tools and talent were the kind that would be welcome by any BIG EAST contender.
Of course, it took a rather unusual encounter for it all to come to pass.
Growing up in South Philadelphia, Brickhouse learned the game where she could, which often meant playing on concrete, sidewalks or rock hard surfaces. In the spring prior to her freshman year at Villanova, Brickhouse spied the Wildcats at a rest stop along I-95 as they made their way back from a weekend visit to Boston College. Brickhouse was with a church group and wearing what DiBernardi describes as "a pink, frilly dress."
"She said, `Hi, I'm Mia Brickhouse and I want to play softball for you," recalls DiBernardi. "Our kids kind of laughed about it later and the sense was there's no way this kid's a softball player. She really wasn't a player then but she was a good athlete who was willing to work hard to learn."
"I was nervous about going up to Maria," says Brickhouse now of that encounter. "I had already been admitted to Villanova as a student so when I saw the team in all their gear that day, I thought I that this was my chance."
Thus began a relationship that would benefit all. After a freshman year's apprenticeship where she was used mostly as a situational player, Brickhouse emerged as a leadoff hitter extraordinaire. Her career .372 average ranks second only to Pasquerella's on the VU career list and she tops the all-time chart in runs scored (137) and stolen bases (80).
"Maria and Linda taught me to be a slap hitter," she says now.
"She never got the ball out of the infield," says DiBernardi with a smile, "but she used her speed and to this day there are schools in this league who talk about the way she impacted a game."
Brickhouse graduated from Villanova with a Communications degree and completed law school at the University. She then went to work in the BIG EAST Conference office and today is the Assistant Commissioner for Championships at the West Coast Conference in San Bruno, Cal.
"I credit my experience playing softball at Villanova as one of the most impactful things in my life," Brickhouse says. "I was just in Philadelphia (recently) and had dinner with three of my former teammates. We have a lifelong connection.
"Being a former student-athlete certainly helped me get to the Big East and that experience is something I still draw upon today."
Brickhouse is among the more noteworthy success stories. Bridget Baxter Orchard (1994-97) is another. She had 216 career hits as a `Cat and since 2001 has amassed 384 Division I victories of her own as the head softball coach at Fordham University.
"I learned a lot from Maria," says Orchard, whose team ironically was staying at the same Florida hotel in March as the Wildcats when DiBernardi recorded her milestone win. "But what stands out to me now is the effort she made with us off the field. At the time I was at Villanova, she was still a full-time nurse raising Deanna and coaching us. Yet she always had time to share in our lives and teach us about life beyond the field. Having been a coach for a while now with my own family, it's something I really appreciate."
Orchard recalls a scene from her freshman year of 1993-94.
"I had a health scare," says the New York native, "and ended up in the hospital. I was away from home and Maria was right there. Ever since, we have been more than family. When I got engaged or we were having our first child, she was one of the first people I called. She is a mentor to me and someone I have so much respect for."
The focus beyond the diamond can be seen through the prism of scholastic success that has been a program staple. There have been 155 BIG EAST Academic All-Stars in Villanova softball history and the 2008 squad was the NFCA All-Academic team with a grade point average of 3.28.
"One of the things I really enjoy about working at Villanova is that you are dealing with academically motivated students," says DiBernardi. "For the most part, we generally don't have to spend a lot of time worrying about their academics. We let them know we're watching over them and we're here if they need us. That's enabled us to focus on coaching and building them as young women who can get out of here and be leaders while they deal with life after Villanova."
The 2012 season began with DiBernardi at 691 victories. A fast break from the gate put her in position to claim the milestone during Villanova's annual spring break trek to Florida, in this case Clearwater.
"I wasn't thinking about it down in Florida," said DiBernardi. "I knew we were up against some really tough teams. But I knew the (players) had it on their minds. They were counting the wins. I wasn't. I think you get to a point in your career where that's not a focus. If you asked me what my record is today, I couldn't tell you.
"It's a good feeling, especially having them all here at Villanova. You just feel proud of your kids."
The 2012 Wildcats are led by a six player senior class that includes pitcher Molly Manning (10-3 record, 2.83 earned run average, .353 batting average and 20 RBI's); pitcher Caitlyn Delahaba (13-6 record, 2.36 E.R.A); third baseman Kristi Burlin (.295 average, 2 home runs, 13 RBI); outfielder Tessa Braga (.347 average, 9 RBI, seven stolen bases); outfielder Jamie O'Hara (team high .425 average, nine stolen bases, 10 RBI); and outfielder Shannon O'Brien (.316 average, 7 RBI).
"I think we're in pretty good shape," says DiBernardi. "I hope the message last year was loud and clear that every game matters ."
Milestones such as this one - the win count is now at 716 - tend to bring up the subject of how many more might there be ahead. Having entered coaching at such a young age (21), DiBernardi is well-positioned to keep climbing the victory ladder. At this stage, she says her enjoyment of the sport hasn't ebbed at all.
"Fortunately or unfortunately - it depends on who's looking at it - my passion for this is as high as it's ever been," she states. "I could be having the worst day in the world but when I turn up Ithan Avenue and see the kids walking down the street, I just get rejuvenated. I love it here and I'll go as long as my body will let me and my administrators will let me go. I am passionate about it. I don't know what I would do without softball."
In the weeks since joining the 700 club, the achievement has remained largely in the background. When DiBernardi does have a moment to reflect, she tends to contemplate the contributions of the co-workers, family and friends who have been such a part of the fabric of Villanova softball. That includes her daughter Deanna, who literally grew up around the program before attending and graduating from Yale in 2009.
"I could not have done what I did without Linda," says DiBernardi of her longtime associate head coach. "I am a single parent and the support that she gave me through the years was just incredible. She knew that I loved what I did. My mother, my family and Jim Zaleski have also been so supportive of me. My daughter, God bless her, understood the game and what was needed. It all worked out."
Numbers matter, of course.
But when the sun sets and the balls and bats are stored for the night, it's all the people who made those victories possible who matter most of all.
- MIKE SHERIDAN
Villanova Media Relations