The birth of Duke's varsity women's softball team

Putting it together took more than just finding some players and coaches.
Writer: 
April 12, 2018

Bob Weiseman stood in left field, waiting under a darkening sky. He looked worried, but that was typical: As associate director of athletics/ athletic facilities, game operations, and championships, Weiseman needs some degree of paranoia, a fussiness to drag the infield one more time, a critical eye to head off anything that could sully a playing surface. Even on the most tranquil afternoon, he has the quiet angst of someone who must ensure nothing under his control goes wrong—while having to pray that nothing does.

But today was far from tranquil: It was the home opener for Duke softball, a game 1,523 days in the making. And when the rain finally arrived less than two hours before the first pitch, any long-held visions of a perfect start had disappeared.

Then came the news that more rain was expected during the game itself. As someone in the press box put it, “Bob’s gonna have a heart attack.”

And yet, two weeks before on this East Campus field, head coach Marissa Young’s team had drilled its ability to improvise under any circumstance. The infielders took in ground balls of every variety—fast, slow, bouncing, squibbing—and booted them on purpose. They fumbled the ball at their feet, and then further away when the coaches, bundled in puffer coats on the first of February, yelled for the errors to be sloppier, more realistic. The players, aided by their fellow infielders’ cries and armed with their regained composure, would scoop the ball and identify the proper adjustment: maybe holding the throw, sometimes slinging to first for an out—the softball meeting the mitt with a satisfying snap. Most often amid the chaos they’d catch a baserunner between bases in the most ragtag of plays, the rundown, the ball ping-ponging between fielders as they wore down the trapped player’s spirit.

The coaches emphasized, though, that even such a scramble has rules: Get the runner to turn her back and fully commit one way; make her, at least, return to her trailing base. And always plan for the unknown. “We really have tried to stress to this group that it’s not about being perfect,” says Young. “It’s about how we’re able to respond to situations when they don’t go our way.”

That attitude pays off outside the infield, especially given what the program has already endured. To build Team One has required a titanic effort from dozens if not hundreds of people. It’s featured a recruiting cycle where the now-stadium was all trees; a former infielder turned marketer; a year of practices on a turf baseball field with a mere third of a roster; and a lineup still adding players a month before the first game. “I wouldn’t say that there’s been an easy week here,” says Jill Ferraro, a graduate transfer from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But honestly, every hard week has been worth it.”

Some rain for the home opener, then, seemed fitting: To get here, the program has had to persist in uncertain conditions. In a way, it was born because of them.

Chris Kennedy Ph.D. ’79 speaks with the dry authority of a dad in charge of the grill. His logic reflects the earned calm of someone who has weighed the alternatives more than anyone else and selected the best course of action. Such care is practically a job requirement, though: As senior deputy director of athletics, Kennedy must ensure Duke’s compliance with Title IX.

But despite his four-plus decades in the athletics department, the task isn’t so straightforward. “You don’t know for sure if you’re in compliance with Title IX,” says Kennedy, “unless the Office of Civil Rights comes in and tells you you are or you aren’t.”

That’s exactly what happened in 1997. To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Title IX—the landmark portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 that guaranteed equal benefits, at institutions receiving federal funding, for both sexes— the National Women’s Law Center filed a complaint against twenty-five institutions, including Duke, to determine if they were in violation. (Title IX compliance in athletics contains numerous elements, but the clearest thresholds are these: Participation opportunities for both women and men must be proportional to their representation among the student body, and scholarship dollars must be awarded in proportion to each sex’s participation.)

Duke at the time was already in the early stages of women’s rowing—the only women’s sport, Kennedy says, that can come close to matching a sizable football roster. That progress toward compliance, along with a promise to implement scholarships in a few other sports, allowed Duke to reach an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights (a sub-agency of the U.S. Department of Education). But in the intervening years, spending on the men’s side crept up. For example, based on the late-1990s operating plan, “men’s track was not supposed to have any scholarships at all,” says Kennedy. “And then I looked up one day, and they had ten…. It’s hard to march that back.”

The school had to bolster its lineup of offerings to “feel safe again”—bumping up the count of scholarships in rowing and women’s track, adding them for swimming and fencing. To equate the numbers, though, Duke would need a new sport for women. But you “can’t just go out and add rodeo,” Kennedy explains. The standard of a “reasonable expectation of regional competition” rules out, yes, rodeo, as well as Ivy League fare like squash. Others, like bowling, involve too few participants to make a dent. “If you look at the roster of ACC sports,” Kennedy says, “there really wasn’t another candidate.” Duke’s twenty-seventh varsity sport would be softball.

Two big questions loomed.

“First, when are we gonna hire a head coach,” says Todd Mesibov, the associate director of athletics/compliance who’s also the softball team’s administrator. “And second, who are we gonna hire?” With games set for 2017-18, Duke had hoped to bring on a coach in the summer of 2016. But starting a program from nothing can mean lacking someone who innately knows the sport. “If we have a soccer coach leave, we have former student- athletes who are in collegiate soccer coaching, and other people we know who we trust, and we have a good sense of the soccer world and how it works,” says Mesibov. “Softball, we didn’t have that grounding.”

The biggest issue was recruiting. Football and basketball high-schoolers typically choose a college as juniors and seniors, but top softball prospects often do so in their freshman and sophomore years—meaning that giving the coach just one year to cobble together a team could result in a sad casting call. And Mesibov and Kennedy’s efforts as interim scouts were ill-fated. “We would laugh, because if we showed up [at a recruiting event], we’d have no idea—we’re not trained,” says Mesibov.

“We don’t know enough about softball to go evaluate at a tournament and decide who would be a good fit.”

The administrators realized they’d need a coach soon. Their savior was just eight miles down the road.

What must the head coach of a new program do? If you’re Marissa Young, the former three-time All-American pitcher at Michigan—and North Carolina assistant coach—who took over at Duke in July 2015, you simply figure things out.

Sure, being the founder has its perks. You play an “absolutely essential” role in planning the $8.8 million stadium with Weiseman— who still compliments you despite you messaging him “every other day” about upgrades. You help craft the field “down to the color and the brick type on the warning track material.” You even design the uniforms.

You also throw batting practice for an entire season when there are no other pitchers on your roster or coaching staff. You build that coaching staff, and then build it again the summer before your inaugural season after your first two assistants leave. You streamline and maximize every moment: In warm-ups, you catch the ball in the glove in your left hand, flip it to yourself, and swing the bat with just your right arm, just to give your infielders a few extra ground balls to field.

You oscillate between demanding and playful; you are the coach who tells the team to get “pep in our step” and minutes later jokes about how you “can’t jump over a credit card” after a throw from the outfield sails above your head. You mute your frustrations when your young team makes errors, knowing that “they’re gonna hit the panic button if [you’re] hitting the panic button.” You find the sweet spot of being, as Jill Ferraro says, “intense, but...not really a yeller.”

You’re constructing a culture where one hasn’t been before, so you borrow from your peers. You enlist Coach K to talk to your team about the importance of standards. For three days, you have your players train with the on-campus ROTC. And above the team’s board of accolades like “Queen of Adjustments” and “Bullpen Beast,” you place a quote. The words come not from a luminary in Duke’s softball glory days; they cannot, of course. Instead, you take an all-caps quote from football coach David Cutcliffe about timing and purpose: “Be where you need to be, doing what you need to be doing to the best of your ability.”

Maybe you are that luminary whose speeches will one day mark these walls. But to get there, you have to persuade others to believe in what you say. So, before anything else, you recruit.

Young took over as the head coach on July 29, 2015, a Wednesday. The following week, she was already in California developing, as she said in her introductory press conference, “the bloodline” of the program. She had to go: It was the last tournament of the summer, one of her best chances to make an impression during that recruiting window.

For many prospective players, joining a team without any track record might instill anxiety about whether the team would be a laughingstock. Yet enough saw Duke’s new team as an opportunity: Its current members, without fail, mention their thrill in building something—as pitcher Peyton St. George, the team’s first-ever signee, says—“from the literal ground up.”

To craft a roster, Young searched for players like St. George and shortstop Jameson Kavel, who didn’t pick their next destination until their junior and senior years of high school, respectively. Others who had committed to different schools, like utility player Rachel Abboud and pitcher Katherine Huey, then pivoted to Duke after their initial universities’ head coaches departed. (They had passed up Duke before Young was named coach.) And Young sorted through the college players contacting her to find those who could thrive academically and athletically at the school: Transfers would account for five of the seventeen players on Duke’s opening-day roster.

For two transfers, the program boasted a natural connection. Raine Wilson began at James Madison in the fall of 2016; by April, she was ready to be done with the sport. “There’s no way I would play college softball again if it wasn’t the right fit,” she says, twenty feet from where her Duke teammates lay down bunts after practice. Wilson had shared her frustrations with high-school teammate and best friend St. George, who then became her “liaison to Coach Young,” sending Young GoPro videos of Wilson from their Mechanicsville, Virginia, playing days. Given that Wilson hadn’t yet secured her release from James Madison, Young couldn’t contact Wilson directly; for a while, “it was basically [St. George’s] word of mouth to Coach Young that I was a good player,” says Wilson. She’s now a co-captain at third base as well as a mainstay in the heart of the batting order.

The other co-captain, Jill Ferraro, didn’t see the field at all last year. But she already knew Duke’s coach: She had played at UNC during the years Young was an assistant there, and the bond they built in Chapel Hill compelled Ferraro to swap shades of blue. “She really cares about all of her players. And it’s really evident,” says Ferraro, an outfielder. Maybe the best example happened this January, when double-digit inches of snow left Durham submerged. Ferraro, enrolled in the Markets and Management Studies program at Fuqua, was the only player living off-campus—a concern for Young. So after practice, Young “followed me home to make sure I didn’t get in a wreck on my way,” Ferraro says. “That’s the kind of stuff—it’s genuine, it makes a difference.”

By forging new connections, and relying on a few old ones, Young compiled the Class of 2017, the backbone of Duke’s opening-day roster. A big hurdle would come, though, before any of those players set foot on the field.

Between May and December 2016, the northwest corner of East Campus morphed from a lush glade to a construction site. The future stadium location was a dusty canvas, save the gray husks of the dugouts and the first half of the outfield wall. Opening day remained far enough on the horizon that the only blue came from the perimeter fencing.

In another timeline, perhaps the facility under construction and the lack of actual games to provide motivation wouldn’t have mattered. But Young already had six players under her wing at Duke. “Last year was a fun challenge,” says Mesibov. “Nobody had ever had student-athletes here who were part of our program but weren’t competing.”

And so the path to opening day began with one of the most ludicrous seasons in Duke history. Young emphasized solo work: lifting, fundamentals. When the players did practice, it was “on the baseball field, on turf,” recalls Hannah Pridemore. “So we didn’t get to see dirt ever.”

On Fridays, they’d simulate games, writing different situations on pieces of paper—bases loaded, one out, etc.—and drawing them from a hat. Young would then pitch to her father, Robert Young, the volunteer assistant coach who represented the opposition, and the players would fill in a makeshift defense: a catcher, someone at third base, someone at first, a couple outfielders. “It was difficult to visualize sometimes,” says Pridemore.

Beyond barely resembling the sport, the season of pure training took a toll. “It was frustrating because you’re, like, ‘I want to play,’ ” says Jazmine Moreno, who has shared time with Pride-more at catcher this year. “ ‘I want to play a game. I want to be at practice with more than six people.’ ”

Young knew she had to do something to focus the team, announcing her plan right at the start of winter break: a triathlon. It’s a day the Class of 2016 remembers less than fondly. “All of us texted each other in our group message immediately: ‘We signed up to play softball, not to run, bike, and swim in a triathlon!’ ” says Pridemore. “So I think that day we were like, ‘Is this day ever gonna come where we can actually step on a real field and play?’ ”

But they survived. Young, who also participated, said that training for the sprint race in Wilmington put them “all in the best shapes of our lives.” Even better, they soon had an actual field to play on, and, finally, some company on the diamond when the Class of 2017 joined. “The first practice we had in the summer…all the people last year were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what it feels like to have a team again!’ ” says Pridemore, noting that, for example, it was great actually “having people to base run.”

Yet well into the fall, Duke softball remained in preseason form, losing its first four exhibition games. Many of the Blue Devils—two-thirds of whom had never played in college— understandably struggled adjusting to the faster-paced level. “You’re trying to explain to somebody that they don’t know what they don’t know,” says Young of coaching freshmen. “And as a coach, usually you identify, ‘Okay, there’s four kids that really need me this year, and I’m gonna home in on getting them better.’ ” This year, she says, “it’s literally our whole roster.”

“There’s really no way to comprehend what it’s like,” says Ferraro. The team’s eldest player (“I always joke that I’ve lost a few years of maturity being around them,” she says), Ferraro imparted the work ethic required to succeed at this level. Same thing with Wilson in her role as “servant leader,” compelling her fellow infielders to stay and take extra ground balls well after practice’s end.

The principles hit home over the holidays. “I think we really instilled in them the message, before they left, that this is crunch time,” says Lacey Waldrop, the former National Player of the Year who became the team’s pitching coach in July. The coaches set up “accountability groups” for the players to share their workouts, how much they hit, what they were doing each day to better their games. Come January, everyone was locked in, including center fielder Dominique Salinas, a transfer from Ole Miss who enrolled in classes the day before the spring semester started, and pitcher Brianna Butler, who finished high school early to join Team One, the transition so quick that she was playing for Duke before receiving her diploma. For returning players especially, a year had made quite a difference. “It was so much more like, ‘Can’t wait to get back this time!’ instead of last year,” Pridemore says, “when it was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to go back and train for a triathlon.’ ”

Eleven months after the Wilmington race, and twenty-seven months since Peyton St. George and outfielder Makenna Lutterloh had a group chat consisting of just two players, Duke softball made history in its first-ever regular-season game. “I don’t think it was unexpected, but it was like, ‘It’s here,’ ” says Raine Wilson of the opening victory under the lights in Boca Raton. “I looked around the circle, we all looked around the circle, and we knew we had something special.”

Building a team requires more than just players and coaches, though. Successful programs have an aura: A Duke men’s basketball game follows a dog-eared script. In the opening weekend, the home softball production is ad hoc. The fill-in announcer clarifies on the fly whether in softball it’s proper to say “first baseman” or “first basewoman,” before defaulting to “playing at first base.” A dance-off on Saturday in dreary conditions gets scrapped because the fans who had agreed to it simply leave. It’s tricky to do any sort of contest without a video board, which the stadium lacks.

But there’s optimism. Jillian Nobles, a Fuqua classmate of Ferraro’s who played on the team through November, reached out to Young after winter break and learned of a marketing-assistant role to help Hunter Richardson, the team’s sports information director. Nobles still has “a bridge into the players”— she’s more willing than Richardson to play their music requests—and has thoughts on shaping a singular softball atmosphere: cheering sections behind home plate, competitions between fans from different graduate and professional schools to ramp up attendance, the right chants to intimidate the opposition. The duo are at the great stage in a project where every idea has potential.

For now, the mood at games stems from the team and Young, who describes her approach as “someone who’s going to set high standards…but we’re gonna have fun in what we’re doing.” From the ledge in the home dugout built for players to lean on (so that they always stand and support their teammates) to the team’s matching gloves with “WE ARE DUKE” stitched on the thumb, Young has cultivated a communal, laid-back atmosphere. The players embrace each other’s quirks, their various pregame rituals and esoteric walkup song choices, like Moreno’s “Imperial March” from Star Wars and Rachel Abboud’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Mulan. “We do what we do because we like to do it,” says Abboud, outlining the team’s ethos, “and we don’t care.”

On Saturday, as Duke heads out into the field during the sixth inning, “Everytime We Touch,” the de facto anthem for Blue Devil fans, comes over the speaker system. But it’s not just the crowd cheering: The whole team joins in, the substitutes in foul territory pumping their arms, the infielders bouncing around on the clay, smacking their gloves to the beat. Maybe the song’s old hat to some, but this is a new twist—the in-game mosh pit. And maybe the team’s initial aura is a cliché, with a changed inflection, viewed in a positive light: The players are just happy to be here.

There’s a way this kind of sports story ends. The first home game slogging through miserable conditions, fans’ umbrellas blooming every other inning. Duke, the motley group expected to limp to a cellar spot, falling far behind before its deliberate comeback. The team securing the game’s final out on a scramble play, a wink of a callback to the practice weeks before—Rachel Abboud scampering from first base across the infield diamond to tag out a Penn State player in a rundown, a split second before the runner advances to third. The full-circle pattern underscoring the program’s journey thus far.

But that’s a third-act, string-swelling ending. And Duke softball has barely made it past the opening credits.

Right now, Young knows that while victories are nice, growth is better. Her go-to phrase is “the process”—of learning, of improving each day—and the truth is that even when good things happen, her focus can’t waver. “It’s really rewarding to look back and see how far we’ve come,” Young says. And yet, “I spend most of my time thinking about what’s ahead of us.” She has to think about next year, which will bring a top-fifteen recruiting class to Durham, and beyond, when the novelty of both the program and Duke will have faded for her veteran players.

Following the game—the dramatic win, the team’s first-ever home triumph—Young emerges from the dugout with a stoic expression. A look at the replay makes clear why: Abboud chased the runner to the leading base, not the trailing base—a breach of the rundown code. The play succeeded, just not for the right reasons.

Young knows there will be many more scrambles in the years to come. There will be more rain, more dance contests gone awry, more rosters and staffs to replenish, more bobbles and crazy plays. Young’s goal, then, is simply ensuring the next try goes better than the last. “I don’t think she really cared, because I got the out,” says Abboud of Young’s reaction to the rundown. “But we definitely worked on it the next day at practice.”

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.