One Saturday morning in the late 1980s, Marissa Young entered a bedroom where her father, Robert, was recovering from working the graveyard shift.
Young jostled him until he awoke. She wanted to join a friend in signing up for the local softball league, and she needed a ride. “Softball? You want to play softball?” he replied, in disbelief since his daughter was in just the first grade. “Have your mom take you.”
Young’s mother took her to registration, and that trip launched Young’s stellar softball career: from her early years in recreational leagues and youth travel teams to her accomplishments as a high-school standout and a collegiate star.
More than twenty-five years later, Young, a three-time All-American pitcher and Big 10 Player of the Year at the University of Michigan, is the new head coach of the Duke women’s softball team.
“It’s such a national brand,” Young says, as she relaxes in her office at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It smells of fresh paint and new carpet. Two shiny aluminum bats rest in a corner, with a baseball she uses to teach hand-eye coordination. “It couldn’t be better.”
At Duke, softball has been a club sport, not a full-fledged varsity program. The university has discussed adding softball as a varsity sport since the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2013 that the administration announced it would do so, says Todd Mesibov, associate director of athletics/compliance.
“In the ’90s, North Carolina softball was a slow-pitch high-school sport,” Mesibov says. But over the past ten years, the popularity of fast-pitch softball spread beyond the traditional Sun Belt states of Texas and California. Meanwhile, the ACC expanded to include schools with varsity softball teams.
Since Young is not inheriting a program from a previous coach but starting the team from scratch, she has to recruit players and staff, order equipment and uniforms, and even consult with architects on a new 1,500-seat-capacity stadium, which will be built north of the fieldhockey facility on East Campus. And every task has to be finished by the first pitch of the 2017-18 season.
“This experience is life-changing for me, my family, and all the women I bring in,” says Young, who has three children.
Building a team is even more difficult now than when Young was a high-school recruit. At fourteen, Young decided she wanted to play college softball, but in the late ’90s, university programs didn’t recruit prospects until they were juniors and seniors. Now, as the sport has become more competitive, universities and colleges are scouting girls even before they reach high school.
With that pool of eighth-grade and freshman recruits exhausted, Young must pick from the best high-school juniors. That’s a challenge, she says, “especially with the academic standards here. I’m looking for kids who won’t be overwhelmed by them.”
Nevertheless, nine players have committed to play at Duke; twelve scholarships will be phased in over time. “I’m excited about the culture they’re bringing,” Young says. “They know what they want academically and professionally. Softball is icing on the cake.”
Young has coached a fledgling program before. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 2003, she was named head coach at Concordia in 2008. After three seasons, during which she took the team from a 2–20 record to 23–23, she became an assistant coach at Eastern Michigan and, later, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Young’s expertise is coaching pitchers and catchers. In softball, a pitcher’s windup uses a windmill technique, which involves a complicated set of coordinated movements involving the arms, shoulders, legs, hips, even the tilt of the head. “I break it down from the foundation,” Young says. “I use film a lot so they can see what they’re doing well. Pitching is also mental. I educate them on how to handle those situations.”
During her coaching career, Young has consulted with her former coach and mentor, Carol Hutchins at the University of Michigan. “She knows how to get the most out of her players,” Young says. “She pushed her kids to be the best they can be. She was real, authentic, honest—a coach you never wanted to disappoint.”
Hutchins is quick to return the compliment. She calls Young “a difference-maker, a pitcher with an attitude, a hitter, a competitor. And she brings that to her coaching. She worked her tail off at Concordia. I’ve told her the sky’s the limit.”
Young’s work ethic came from her father. Although he slept in on the morning she signed up for her first softball team, he used his experience as a baseball player and a coach to diligently work with her. “He was tough on me,” Young says. “I wasn’t the most talented player, but I worked really hard and had a passion for competition.”
Perhaps Young’s competitive spirit can be summed up in one pivotal moment: As a kid, Young saw another player, a pitcher, under pressure, crying on the mound.
What did Young do?
“I said, ‘Give me the ball.’ ”
Sorg is a freelance journalist and former fast-pitch softball player. She lives in Durham.