April 23, 2017

Sac State softball benefits from solid coaching

Sophomore Celina Matthias pitches the ball against Santa Clara at Shea Stadium, Tuesday, Apr. 12. Matthias struckout eight batters through five innings.

Behind the Sacramento State athletes on the field for the school are coaches who commit a huge portion of their time in dedication to their players.

For the softball staff, together for their third year, they are seeing their work show up in their players’ performance, as the softball team is tied for first place with Seattle University in the Big Sky Conference heading into the final leg of the season.

Head coach Lori Perez, who brought in coach Nicole Willis and coach Danielle Kaminaka from outside the area, has surrounded her athletes with former players who have established not only a good connection with the squad but have also brought in a new perspective on the game and how to play.

“I wanted somebody who could come in and call pitches like coach Willis does, and I wanted somebody to work exclusively with our hitters, which is what Danielle [Kaminaka] does, so they both fit that mold perfectly,” Perez said. “I also wanted people that really had no affiliation with Sac State. I wanted to bring in some fresh blood, some people that would have new ideas, that would challenge me, challenge us to think a bit differently, and that’s what they both have done.”

The season got off to a rocky 2-8 start for the Hornets, but they’re firing on all cylinders now. Having early adversity like that was a growing experience not only for the players but for the coaches too, and as coach Willis explains, the coaches are comfortable letting players falter. It’s the only way players can grow mentally resilient, maybe the biggest skill a softball player can learn.

“As far as I like to talk to the players, it’s okay to be down on yourself about something, but this game is about how quickly you can let it go and shake it and move on. I coach from the theory of live pitch to pitch, one pitch at a time,” Willis said, “and I think the quicker you can adapt to that mentality as a ballplayer, the better off it is.”

Willis, who works primarily with the pitching battery, has helped guide the pitchers to being one of the top-flight staffs in the conference. A former catcher herself, she calls the games for the battery from the dugout, relaying pitch selection through the catcher to the pitcher.

“Being a catcher is probably one of the most under-recognized things, because what people don’t know is that you’re dealing with that person on the circle, the pitcher,” Willis said. “It’s almost like being a catcher is so much more than x’s and o’s to the game; it’s like being a therapist to your pitcher.”

Kaminaka, meanwhile, works with an offense that has come on strong as of late, scoring an average of six runs per game during its recent seven-game win streak. For designated player Sasha Margulies, who met the assistants during her sophomore year, and the rest of the players, these coaches mesh perfectly with the personality of this team.

“We initially thought, ‘Wow, these girls are crazy great players, we’re pretty lucky to have coaches like them,’ and we’ve never been wrong about that,” Margulies said. “They’re just super knowledgeable about the game, and we were kind of intimidated at first because we thought they were so good, but they ended up being not only great people to talk to about softball but really great people in general to work with. They’re awesome coaches.”

All the coaches have their hands in everything around the team, but some players see a particular coach more than the others. For Margulies, having a coach like Kaminaka, who dedicates herself to refining her player’s hitting, is invaluable to her career as a Hornet.

“Coach K, she is unbelievably knowledgeable about hitting. She was a great softball player. … Not only her advice about hitting but the way she breaks it down to you is really easy to understand ,” Margulies said. “She’s very good at making things easier to break down than most people, and she’s really good about analyzing your swing to the T.”

The Hornets have also been fortunate to have what is essentially another coach. Volunteer Jim Wetzel, a former baseball player, works with Kaminaka on hitters. He has taken charge of the base running and provides another voice of experience for the clubhouse. Whereas other volunteers show up for a couple days, Wetzel is there every practice, every game and is considered another coach by the entire squad.

“He’s invaluable to us, and I think Danielle [Kaminaka] and Nicole [Willis] would say the same thing,” Perez said. “He just fits in with all our personalities.”

Wetzel was named first base coach this year, evidence of his importance. Margulies echoed her coach’s statement, expanding on Wetzel’s role on the team and his passion for the sport.

“Jim [Wetzel] is super positive. That’s what I love about him. He’s really intense, loves the game more than anyone I’ve met in my entire life. He does it in a really positive way,” Margulies said.

Behind the players winning these games for Sac State are the coaches who are trying to mold their athletes, molding them to be not only the best players they can be but also the people they should be. With as many competitive personalities as there are on the staff, it’s remarkable how light they keep it in the clubhouse and all the more impressive that they’ve kept their focus on winning the day.

“They’re in a good place right now; I think that they’re finally starting to understand there isn’t another team on the other side, this is about us,” Willis said. “I’ve seen good stuff going on in the dugout as far as energy and just funny stuff, enjoying the game. That’s so important. If you don’t enjoy this game, then how are you going to let go when you’re 0-for-20?”

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