BY JEFF FALK
ANNVILLE – Up until a few years ago, softball was the poor step sister among the extremely competitive Lebanon Valley College women’s athletic programs. While privileged older siblings field hockey and basketball were off at their versions of the ‘big dance’, the softballers were left at home to mop the floor and clean the dishes.
But currently there is something magical going on in Annville, and the softball team has been transformed into sort of the Flying Dutchmen’s third ‘Cinderella’. But now that all three sisters are on a ‘level playing field’, sort to speak, does that mean there is no longer any sibling rivalry?
The LVC softball program is currently enjoying the type of success on the diamond that it has rarely, if ever, experienced during its long past.
The Flying Dutchmen have won a program-record 11 straight games to open the spring, and are currently the 14th-ranked NCAA Division Three team in the country. Lebanon Valley is coming off a 2013 campaign in which it went 36-7-1, captured its second Commonwealth Conference championship, and reached a regional final in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
“When I first got here, I actually worked with Coach (Kathy) Tierney and the field hockey program,” said Lebanon Valley head coach Stacy Hollinger, who’s in her 15th season at the Flying Dutchmen helm. “We’re fortunate with the (athletic) department we have here. It’s a great environment to work in. We all kind of pull for one another, and we hope that filters down to the kids. It’s more that they pull for one another (than compete with each other). They’re friends. They support each other. They see each other in the training room.”
The softball success Lebanon Valley is currently enjoying is the result of a decade-long growth process.
In 2001, the Flying Dutchmen made their first-ever playoff and conference final appearance. Then in 2008, Lebanon Valley won its initial Commonwealth Conference title.
“The foundation has been laid,” said Hollinger. “A lot of this success was built on the struggles of the past. The alums, they’re the ones who built the program. Once teams learn how to win, that’s a huge step. I’ve just been fortunate to have great alums. And I have had great assistant coaching staffs. If you don’t have the players and coaches, there’s no way we could be in the position we’re in right now. They (assistant coaches) certainly aren’t in it for the money. But they’re not afraid to speak up and inject new ideas.
“It’s an outcome-based sport,” Hollinger continued. “If you win it’s fun. The last couple of years have absolutely been fun. We’ve taken some lumps and now we’re giving some lumps. This college seems to attract quality kids, quality families. That’s what makes it enjoyable. But it’s most enjoyable when you see quality kids rewarded with wins.”
Talent and coaching. Success breeds success. And while thankless hours of recruiting is essential in the world of non-scholarship Division Three athletics, sometimes talent is drawn to success.
“Recruiting is huge,” said Hollinger, who also doubles as an assistant athletic director at Lebanon Valley. “But to be honest, there are players on this team who weren’t recruited, and who are contributing. We have a nice mix of kids who were attracted to Lebanon Valley and came out for the softball team. It’s like, ‘Wow, where did you come from?’ But it’s (recruiting) a lot of work.
“In the summer, when it’s recruiting and we’re not in the heat of a season, I enjoy it,” added Hollinger. “I like being around kids. It’s (coaching) one of the better jobs we have, especially on this campus, because we do attract quality kids who are fun to be around. The worst part is everybody works hard, and you can’t reward them with playing time. That’s what keeps me up at night, not the winning and the losing.”
Truth be told, the Flying Dutchmen’s success has fostered a bit of a ‘one upmanship’ within the softball program. But the further LVC goes, the more difficult living up to expectations become.
“It’s the same as any other team’s,” said Hollinger of the 2014 goals. “We want to be in our conference tournament because that’s the best way to get into the NCAA tournament. You can’t control all that other stuff. What you can control is your conference stuff. But at the end of the year, we want to be playing our best softball.
“So far, so good,” Hollinger added. “Obviously the weather is becoming a challenge. We really haven’t been on our field that many times, so it’s tough to get comfortable. But it’s tough to complain because the kids have handled it so well. Obviously it’s (the national ranking) nice to get the recognition. But it’s a six- or seven-person committee that determines that ranking. It’s nice. It means someone respects your program. But in the end, you’ve got to earn it on the field.”
While this may be the most talented crop of Flying Dutchmen that she has ever coached, Hollinger understands that means nothing without that elusive thing called ‘chemistry’.
“I would have to say, ‘yeah’, but not by much,” said Hollinger, when asked if this current club was her most physically gifted. “But if you go from the top of the roster to the bottom, I’d have to say, ‘yes’. From our first player to our 19th player, this team is as deep and talented as anyone I’ve ever had.
“That’s (chemistry) a big one,” concluded Hollinger. “If you don’t have that, you’re going to lose games you should’ve won, and you’re not going to win games you should’ve lost. We want to talk with each other, not about each other.”