First-year GW softball coach Jo Anne Ferguson spent Tuesday morning firing batting practice pitches to her team on a sun-soaked field at Mount Vernon. Players enthusiastically encouraged each other’s swings, and as line drives dinged off the aluminum bats, it appeared as if the three-year-old program was back to normal.
“It’s better than normal,” sophomore outfielder Katy Harrigan said from the dugout. “We have a lot of talent and a lot of expectations.”
Normal is not an appropriate word to describe the GW softball team’s situation in recent years. Last March, players alleged that then-head coach Shaunte’ Fremin was abusive to them, eventually leading to her resignation in early March.
Players told The Hatchet in March that Fremin, a first-year coach, often coerced them into playing with serious injuries, deceiving trainers and doctors and practicing over the NCAA’s weekly limits. As a result of their injuries, the University suspended the softball season in early March and canceled it March 22.
The University brought in an outside investigator to look into the allegations but did not make the report public. The NCAA did not penalize the program, ensuring that last season would not count against the four years players are eligible to compete.
Now, despite the program’s history, players, coaches and administrators are optimistic that the team is headed in a positive direction. On Sept. 13, the team began practicing for the first time since reporting their problems with Fremin. And last weekend, the Colonials took the field for the first time under Ferguson, winning both of their games in a winning both of their games in a fall exhibition tournament.
“Positive” is a word oozing out of all facets of the softball program, right down to the practice uniforms the players are wearing. Adorned on their grey T-shirts is the slogan “All Heart,” a motto Ferguson developed. The slogan is an acronym that stands for honor, effort, attitude, readiness and togetherness – all attributes she hopes her team will exude this year.
But there is still a long way to go, as GW softball has had a rocky start since the program’s inception in 2002. There have been three head coaches – Ferguson, Fremin and Leslie Moore, who also lasted only one year before leaving to take the head coaching job at the University of Pennsylvania.
Over that time, GW has compiled a 4-41-1 overall record.
“We need to establish expectations and traditions here,” Ferguson said. “We really just want to turn things around and I think we have the players to do that.”
The current upbeat nature of the program, she added, is a reflection of her coaching style.
“I think there’s several different styles to motivate players,” she said. “My personality is not ‘Me against them.’ I wouldn’t coach well in that type of situation. I want the players to know, first and foremost, I’m in their corner. I’m going to push them in practice, but they have to know this is their practice and their team.”
Players last year may have been pushed too hard, but a lack of intensity does not seem to be an issue with them. They said they do not want past events to shape the rest of their collegiate careers.
“(Coach Ferguson) is not going to try and cheat us in practice,” sophomore co-captain Gabby Culp said. “She won’t go easy, this is still a (Division I) school.”
However, this is still a team recovering from tough circumstances, and a positive atmosphere could combat any leftover feelings from last year.
“There are a lot more positives, which is a big help to our confidence,” junior co-captain Elana Meyers said. “We have the freedom to make mistakes.”
“The environment I like to create as a coach,” Ferguson added, “is not a fear of failure (by the players) or the look of terror in their eyes.”
Meyers, along with elder members of the Colonials, have provided excellent team leadership, according to Ferguson. There are 10 freshmen on the 2004-05 squad, which is a large number, considering last year’s events. Not a single recruit who committed to play for Fremin changed their mind about coming to GW.
That is not to say there were no worries concerning the state of the program.
“There were so many different unknowns,” freshman Caroline Howe said. “But the returning girls were all very encouraging. They made it comfortable for me and the transition was easy.”
While the mood is positive now, the question remains: Have changes really been made to prevent a repeat of last year? The coaching change was an obvious move, but Director of Athletics Jack Kvancz said there will be no specific changes in the athletic department.
“We pay close attention to every team,” he said. “But will we will look a little more closely at softball? Probably. I might go to see practice, but I won’t be on the field. I’m not coaching the team.”
Certainly, all parties involved seem to be aware of the effect of injuries on players, a cause for serious concern last year. At one point, only eight players were healthy enough to take the field.
“(Fremin) kept telling us that the injured are looked on as weak,” a player said in March. “And she would ask us, ‘What are the injured looked on as?’ And we’d have to be like, ‘Weak.'”
The situation appears quite different now. At practice Tuesday, sophomore Jen Hrycyna stood on the third base side of the infield, next to the dugout in sweats. She is still rehabbing a herniated disk in her back but watched the drills her teammates participated in.
Because fall is not the softball team’s main season (official NCAA and Atlantic 10 games are played in the spring), a trainer does not need to be present at all practices. The team does have a walkie-talkie on at all times, in case medical attention is needed.
The threat of injury is always a concern, but it does not seem to be putting a damper on the mood of the players. At Tuesday’s practice, most of the Colonials were smiling, getting up for Wednesday’s doubleheader against Howard, which they would go on to split.
When practice ended late Tuesday morning, Meyers stayed behind to take a few extra ground balls at shortstop. As she worked on her footwork and fired balls to Ferguson at first base, one could feel a sense of dedication and passion lost in last year’s controversy.
Extended practice time may have been a concern last year. But now, the extra work is voluntary, and that is just fine with Ferguson.
“(The players) are starting to realize that that this is their program,” she said. “We’ve been through what we’ve been through in the past. Now, what do we want to do in the future? Where do we want this program to go?”