Softball assistant coach provides spark for suging Gator squad

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It was the bottom of the second in the first game of a doubleheader for the Allegheny softball team against rival Denison College Saturday and the Gators were up to bat. With a score of 0-0, Gator players filled first and third with one out. Freshman pitcher Caitlin Nealer was up to bat and facing a full count. She stayed alive, hitting a foul ball on the sixth pitch.

Dressed head to toe in navy Gator gear and sporting a blue athletic gauze headband like her players, assistant coach Jamie Colley jumped around by first base with energized cheers, “Come on Caitlin!” accompanied by a loud, palm-based clapping that filled the cold empty air.

Although Nealer strikes out and the next batter grounded out, the Gators went on to defeat Dennison 2-0 in the first game, and 3-2 in the second. It was the first time they swept Dennison in a regular season series since 2004 and their first 2-0 start in NCAC games since 2009.

Walking away from the series with a 15-4-1 record, it has been a turnaround season for Allegheny, surpassing last year’s 7-21 record. They swept Wooster College in their next doubleheader on Tuesday.

Head coach Sandra Sanford said that a new lifting program, a more focused team mentality, and an energetic, positive assistant coach have helped the team turn things around.

Colley is the fourth assistant coach that the program has seen in the past four years.

She’s also 23-years-old, just a little more than a year older than a college senior.

Coming into the position, Colley knew that the Gators expected to have a transformative spring season, but she said that it has gone beyond her expectations.

“17-4-1 is what we are right now… that’s awesome. Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” she said. “I think the girls worked really hard in the off season and they’ve done a great job of coming together as a whole. Their effort has made the season what it is.”

This season is a changeup for Colley as well. Last year at this time, she wasn’t coaching the outfielders: she was in the outfield, playing for John Carroll University.

The JCU Blue Streaks won the Ohio Athletic Conference championship in 2010, and won their regular conference games again in 2011, a feat that Colley said the program had never accomplished. Colley was a team captain both years, and honored with the John Carroll Athletic Association Sportsmanship Award her senior year.

Qualities like these are what make up for her lack of coaching experience, said Sanford.

“Not only was she a one-time captain, but a two-time captain,” she said. “Those are things that peak my interest in somebody because clearly, somebody thought that she had great leadership capacity, coaches and teammates alike. Then when I interviewed her, she was just so passionate about the game.”

After former assistant coach Libby Lenart left, Sanford said that roughly 50 people applied for the open position.

Colley said that she sent a letter and her resume to at least 75 different schools. She was at her family’s home in Texas when she had her 45-minute phone interview with Sanford on a summer Friday. In that time, Sanford asked about her program at JCU, how she would transition from player to coach, and how she would deal with working with girls that were less than a year younger than her.

Sanford wanted Colley to visit immediately, so Colley changed her plans and arrived in Meadville three days later. It was her first coaching interview.

“I thought it went well, but I didn’t know,” she said. “I told my parents, ‘I was myself so if she doesn’t hire me that’s okay because I was just being me.’”

That evening, Sanford called her with a job offer. Colley said that she didn’t think twice about it, and accepted.

“I actually cancelled the rest of my on-campus interviews after I interviewed her,” Sanford said.

Colley, a sociology major, didn’t know that she wanted to be a coach until the middle of her junior year of college. She coached a travel U12 softball team in Ohio the summer going into her senior year of college, and then knew that she wanted to work with an older group of girls.

“I was like I just want to coach, that’s what I want to do and it didn’t matter if I was going to volunteer coach and have a side-job working elsewhere, I just knew that one day I was going to have my foot in the door. So I went with that gut instinct.”

A middle child of three, Colley’s parents always told her that she needed to do what she was passionate about and that the rest would fall into place.

Freshman Amelia Pennington said that Colley’s passion for the game is evident..

“You don’t ever feel like it’s her job or something that she has to be doing,” she said. “You can just tell she loves the sport, she loves being there for us, and she just loves her team.”

Sanford said that a strong assistant coach has a large role in the team’s success, especially the way in which she operates her team, giving the assistant coach a lot of responsibility.

“Having a new assistant could impact [the team] one way or the other because it’s change, but Jamie’s impact on our team has just been a great one, because she just has great energy,” she said. “She’s a great person to be around. She’s positive, she’s energetic and her love of the game is contagious to everyone around her.”

Colley said she hopes to give her Allegheny players what her former coaches gave to her.

“I hope I can give what my coaches gave to me, and that’s probably not the greatest answer, but it’s moments that you can’t even explain,” she said. “That one day they’ll think back and think, ‘Oh, Coach taught me that’ and just know that I helped them accomplish what they wanted to and get out what they wanted to from softball and just growing up in life… because I know my coaches gave back to me things that I will never be able to explain on paper.”

Pennington said that as a pitcher, she doesn’t work with Colley as much as other players, but has still learned from her coaching.

“You see how people react to her and how everyone in the athletic department loves her, how all the players love her, and so you just kind of learn that that personality, that kind of positivity that she brings to everything she does on or off the field, is something that I want to embody when I’m doing things,” she said.