New Coaches Inspire Softball Optimism


Isabel Owens, Lifestyle Editor

After a 2-win, 16-loss record during last year’s “slightly less structured” season, varsity softball is setting out with a “clean slate” and a fresh outlook, according to new assistant coach John Fondnazio.

The team has procured a new coaching trio, head coach Wayne Stephens and assistant coaches Steve Mitolo and John Fondnazio.

After coaching a travel softball squad over the summer, as well as baseball, football, soccer, and basketball at different points in his career, Stephens said that he had “been wanting to get into high school coaching and an opening opened up” at Campolindo.

Stephens reached out to Mitolo, with whom he coaches travel ball, and Fondnazio, with whom he plays adult softball. “We both kind of coached that and understand the game, and when he was offered the position to coach here at Campolindo, he asked me if I would entertain helping out and I told him absolutely,” said Fondnazio.

Mitolo first got into softball when his daughter began playing at the age of 6. “They needed someone to haul the gear around so I volunteered and the next thing I know I’m coaching. Then you just kind of work your way up and in a couple of years you’re the assistant coach,” he said. “The next thing you know someone’s asking you to come to high school and coach.”

Though Fondnazio has coached LMYA [Lafayette-Moraga Youth Association] for several years, he had never coached at “this level” prior. “I think the thing getting into this level was just a natural progression. I do it in my professional career; I do a lot of sales coaching, and I enjoy sharing the knowledge that I have with people,” he said.

“The thing that I notice and really enjoy the most with these girls is the level of appreciation they have for the program,” he said. “Coming from last season to this year, the enthusiasm that everyone’s had with our preseason conditioning, which is something they haven’t had in the past, to now. It’s been overwhelming: how excited they are, and how enthusiastic they are, and how hard they work.”

Fondnazio’s understanding of last season is that it was “kind of a mish-mosh of maybe slightly less structured than the way that Coach Wayne and Coach Steve and myself have structured this year. I won’t say that it’s bad and I certainly don’t want to disparage any other coaches.”

According to the 3rd and 1st baseman, junior Grace Deskin, there was tension between the players, coaches and parents during last year’s disappointing season.

According to sophomore outfielder Nia Harper, last year’s struggles were compounded by a roster of inexperienced players and a lack of cohesion. “The seniors would try to help us, but they were just kinda doing their own thing. We didn’t really have a good bond with the teammates and the coaches.”

Coaching turnover has plagued the last few years of Cougar softball. “Freshman year was really difficult because we had a lot of seniors who were very experienced, which was good. But halfway through the season our coach quit and our coach Bob, who coached us last year, replaced him,” said Deskin.

The team’s 2013 NCS win also added pressure for higher achievement in 2014. “The end of that season made Bob expect more from us and expect us to have the natural ability because there wasn’t much that he could coach us in at the end of freshman year. It was all Joe Long’s coaching that got us to NCS,” Deskin explained.

Stephens, Mitolo, and Fondnazio are serious during practice, but less intense in games, according to Deskin. “They don’t really care if we win or lose, they really just care about whether we’re playing well,” she said. However, they are “a lot more serious as far as how we handle our time and they don’t like goofing around. They like us to do things quickly.”

The new coaches “act like coaches should,” according to sophomore Sydni Gordon. “They don’t yell too much. Not yet,” she said.

Harper agreed that the new coaches “actually want us to do good.”

Though Fondnazio has approached this new season with optimism. “The season’s pasts are gone. We have a brand new set of coaches. All these girls are brand new to us,” he said.

Stephens is also determined to put aside last season’s struggles. “The game of softball is the game of softball,” he said. “I think we would like to make it a very serious season, but again, that is up to the players. As coaches, I know that we strive for it to be a serious season, but at the same time have fun during the season.”

According to Stephens, the team currently has “2 seniors, 3 juniors, and the rest are sophomores and freshmen.” The 2nd wave of tryouts is not yet over. “It’s absolutely 100% based on talent; it’s not based off of upperclassmen or underclassmen,” he said.

Fondnazio is  not concerned that the team is predominantly underclassmen. “Because this team is so young, there’s a ton of development here. The opportunity for them to grow and understand our coaching philosophy is gonna be tantamount to their success in the future,” he said.

According to Deskin, one of the most promising new players is freshman Ria Chen. “She’s never played before in her life and she just has a knack for softball. Whenever the coaches tell her to do something, she listens and she changes it. She really just goes and gives it her all, which I think is really important,” Deskin testified.

Deskin believes that the pre-season conditioning provided by Stephens has allowed new players like Chen a chance to “get into the swing of things before the season even started.” She explained, “That was really helpful because there’s a lot of new kids who didn’t really have any experience before this and it helped them.”

The good turnout for conditioning not only gave the girls a chance to bond with each other but allowed the coaches to get to know the players. Deskin said that over the months she has connected most with Fondnazio. “I can joke around with him more and he’s also a 1st base coach, and that’s what I play, so he coaches me one-on-one a lot,” she said.

Fondnazio believes that though the coaches work as a team, each one can connect with certain players in different ways. “I live and breathe baseball and softball, and so having that perspective and understanding the nuances of the game mentally is something a little different than what these guys have brought to the table,” he explained.

Mitolo said that he is unique in his lighthearted approach to the sport. “I like to stay positive and I like to keep things a little light. We have other coaches that can stay on the girls and things,” he said. “I don’t think we need all 3 of us to be hard cases so I like to keep it light and keep the girls relaxed, see if someones struggling and I’ll go up and pull her aside and talk to her.”

Although the squad has so far lost both to Encinal 10-0 and to Ygnacio Valley 16-15 during pre-season, Harper believes that the team has a “good chance. Our first one we lost kinda bad but our 2nd one was a good game but we lost by 1, but we put up a good fight.”

According to Stephens, Encinal is “one of the toughest teams that we’re going to play all season. We came out and battled really well, so I’m actually very pleased with how the girls will progress.”

Stephens stated that the team’s defense and infield are strong. “We do need to develop some more pitchers. We just have one, and then we’ve got to work some more on the hitting. We’re able to put the ball in play but we have to work on driving the ball,” he said.

The team is working on integrating basketball players such as senior pitcher Charlotte McNeil and freshmen Ashley Thoms, Danielle Rhoda, and Kate Miles into the team as their winter sport season ends. “It’s really tough because we have to sub in people that are much less experienced for their positions and its hard losing when we know we could have won if they were there,” said Deskin.

Nevertheless, the girls have “fit in extremely well,” according to Fondnazio.

“This team’s a work in progress but every one of the girls likes to work hard and want to improve and get better, so it’s a great thing for us coaches to have,” said Stephens.