YORKTOWN – It’s hard to say which side got the more ideal match.
In Jeff Berger, Yorktown got a softball coach who led Cowan to four sectional titles, two regional crowns and the 2009 state finals in five years with the program. In the Tigers, Berger inherits a roster loaded with seniors who have been in the varsity lineup since they were freshmen and the experience of winning three regional titles and one semistate.
See, pretty hard to say if either side landed a better situation.
“I’m loving it,” said Berger, admitting he never dreamed he’d be coaching many of these players in their senior seasons. “I’ve come to a team that’s well-established. They’re self-motivated, so it’s been working real good.
“It’s been an easy transition for the coaching staff.”
For the first time in six seasons, the Tigers will enter the season with a new coach. Chrissie Saunders departed in the offseason when her family moved to South Carolina. Berger had taken last season away from coaching to watch his daughter play out her final college season.
It’s not often the coach comes into a roster that won 78 games across three seasons.
Several of the Tigers players admitted they didn’t know much about Berger. Saunders’ departure was unexpected, and when Berger first got the job, a few players were a bit wary, stressed or worried. They remembered playing Cowan in past years, remembered those were good teams but were only vaguely familiar with them.
But with a large, tight group of seniors in the lead, adapting didn’t take long.
“I love having so many girls back this year,” senior pitcher Grace Lumpkin said. “There’s a few key missing pieces that I’ve been with for three years and I definitely miss them. But having most everyone here is awesome. Yeah it was different at the beginning having different people run the show, but I’m used to it now.”
Shortstop Katy Johnson added the new coaches have tried to make everyone comfortable and that, “it’s not a big deal and we’ve adjusted well.”
Softball might be one of the easier sports to have a coaching change because almost every highly competitive player does travel ball and plays for a variety of coaches each year.
This is a new world for Berger, after spending his previous stop at the Class A level. There, he’d have 12-13 girls come out. Now he’s got around 25, and he promised all of them they come in with a clean slate.
The players said the new coaches haven’t tried to change anything big, rebuild the way someone plays. They’re just trying to keep up the success both this program and class have achieved.
The Tigers should return six of their top eight players, including much of a murderous lineup. Four of the seniors are college signees (Johnson at IUPUI, Lumpkin at Marian, Ashleigh Morrow at St. Francis and Morgan Masters at St. Joseph’s).
They’re still inserting senior Haley Hill to replace longtime stalwart Kendra Saunders at catcher, but throw in Lumpkin, the team’s ace the past three seasons, and this is a team built with big goals in mind.
Much of this group played in the state title game as sophomores and then fell short of a return trip with a 6-0 semistate title game loss to Leo last season. The memories of that haven’t left the team.
“Everybody tries to tell you to forgive and forget,” Johnson said. “But I definitely hold that in the back of my head so I know what it feels like and know that I don’t want to feel like that again.”
So this is the group Berger inherits. There’s a blend of experience and camaraderie here, but also a hint of desperation.
These players have gone through so many deep postseason runs and always been told there’s another chance next year. But now there is no next year. This is there farewell ride, so even a new coach can see how self-motivated his squad is.
“We’re a lot more serious this year,” Johnson said. “Not that we haven’t been serious in the past, but we’re definitely out for one goal and that’s to be successful this season.”