Coach Patti Gerckens' 19th season at the helm of the UC San Diego Softball team has turned out to be her best. Sporting a sterling, 41-13, record, the 16th-ranked Tritons were regular season champions of the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. (CCAA), have rolled to five straight NCAA post-season wins and by virtue of sweeping Cal State San Bernardino in last weekend's Super Regional, are in the NCAA Division II Championships for the first time. The winningest coach in UCSD history, Gerckens now owns 471 career victories and has taken her team to the NCAA Playoffs in four of the past five seasons. With the 2011 NCAA Championship opener against C.W. Post (NY) looming Thursday in Salem, VA, Gerckens took the time to talk about her team, the season and the coaching profession.
Q--What was your first thought when the final out was recorded in last Saturday's NCAA Super Regional final?
GERCKENS--There was just pure excitement and the incredible feeling knowing we were going to the national tournament, which was everyone's goal from the start of the season. I was also thankful we'd won the first two games of the series and weren't going to have to play a third.
Q--As a veteran coach, what does it mean to reach the NCAA Championships for the first time?
GERCKENS--It's about time. Seriously, it is the culmination of just putting in the hours, teaching the athletes, putting together a top notch staff and so many other things. There's a great feeling of accomplishment, but not satisfaction--not yet.
Q--Aside from making the NCAA Championship, what has made this season special?
GERCKENS--I think first of all, our freshmen class has made it special. They've contributed a lot. They are our future and at the start of the season, we knew we had a lot of good young players but didn't know how well they would do.
And our seniors, they stepped up and played a major role all season but over the last three weeks or so, they had a burning desire that really came out. They wanted this badly and that was something we haven't seen in a long time.
Q--Was there a particular point during the season where you first thought this team might be a little different in terms of how successful it could be?
GERCKENS--When we had a strong performance at the Tournament of Champions in Turlock and continued to play well past that tournament. A lot of times in previous seasons, that's where we let down but this year, we continued to play at a high level and compete.
I also felt as if this team had much more composure. It played to win more than not to lose and I think that's one of the keys to being successful.
Q--It's been such a whirlwind between Saturday's win and arriving in Salem for the NCAA tournament Tuesday night. What have been the key messages you've tried to impart to your team in the lead-up to Thursday's NCAA first round game?
GERCKENS--The message is "I haven't had one...." It starts Thursday prior to the game. That's not entirely accurate but it feels like that. We've had just one practice since Saturday's Super Regional final, flew on two separate planes back to Salem and there has really been precious little time to talk about what's ahead.
At our one practice, we talked about striking a balance in going to the NCAA Championship. We have certainly achieved many of our goals and I want the team to enjoy every moment of what they've accomplished. At the same time, we didn't play this year just to get here--we want to win. The message is to balance enjoying the experience while maintaining focus.
Q--How have you changed as a coach during your career and particularly over the last year?
GERCKENS--I really have just tried to stay relaxed and let the team play the game on game day. Sometimes that's more difficult than others but I've found that the calmer I am, the calmer they are. There have even been times when I've had to tell them to relax and enjoy the game. So, for me, the biggest change is being much more relaxed--at least outwardly.
Q--What is the most exhilirating and most frustrating part about being a coach?
GERCKENS--The most exhilirating thing to see is the look on the players faces during this run--to see their absolute excitement and enjoyment when they achieve their goals. And the biggest one is right in front of us.The see, feel and be a part of that is what every coach is in it for. It's also a thrill to be able to share that with an outstanding coaching staff.
As far as frustration, like any team we go through ups-and-downs and face adversity. But good teams learn to deal with those situations and get better for working through them. As a coach, hopefully, you make a difference.
Q--Especially late in the season, your team has ridden the pitching of All-American Camille Gaito. What does she bring to the team when she's in the circle?
GERCKENS--What you see is what you get with Camille. She's not an overpowering pitcher but she dominates because she makes her pitches move and she's such a smart pitcher. She's confident, competitive and I think the team has a sense that when she's out there, she's in control.
I'm excited for this week's games because none of these teams have ever seen her. I think it will be hard for them to adjust to the things she does.
Q--This team has had a penchant for doing what it takes offensively and there have been a lot of dramatic victories down the stretch. Is that something that can be a "learned habit?"
GERCKENS--At the time, I'm usually not all that thrilled about waiting until the last at bat to generate runs, but when a team can compete and come out with a "W," there's no better way to prepare for what we're going to be facing at the NCAA Championships. We know how to handle tight situations and know we can win--that's very important at this time of the season.
Q--What do you consider the key to this team's offense?
GERCKENS--When we score first, we do well. That doesn't mean we can't come back, but scoring first is really important. We're not a power team so we've got to put hits together, execute and do the little things that add up to big runs.
Q--What role has defense played in this team's success?
GERCKENS--From Day One, defense has been a top priority and over the last few weeks, our defense has definitely won games for us. We've had so many close games and being able to rely on your defense in those types of games makes the difference. We've done a really good job of just making the routine plays. That's an underrated part of the game.
Q--Your typical eight position players are comprised of four seniors and four freshmen. How has that dynamic played out?
GERCKENS--On the field, they don't think of themselves as seniors, juniors, sophomores or freshmen, just teammates. They've all really jelled and developed a lot of mutual respect. Having said that, I think our seniors have learned something about competing from the freshmen who have come in and taught our veterans that they could push their games to a higher level.
On the other hand, I believe our freshmen have been impacted by seeing that our seniors want to win very, very badly. We've had a great mix.
Q--You're from New Jersey, played collegiately at University of North Carolina and coached for some 20 years at UC San Diego. How do all of those experiences fit together as you head into this week's play?
GERCKENS--In a way, being in Virginia for the NCAA's is a little like coming home. Just being here this week is a little like getting a taste of my college life all over again. When I was a player at UNC, we played in this part of the country and we're not all that far from New Jersey where my love of softball started.
Being able to continue sharing a passion of mine with the student-athletes at UCSD in this part of the country is special. It feels very good to be here.
Q--Family has always been an important part of your life. How does that play into the chemistry on this team and what did your own mother have to say when she learned your team was going to the NCAA Championship?
GERCKENS--We've talked all year long about being a family and like a family, we've had our ups-and-downs, but we support each other and are a close-knit group. I think we've developed a lot of trust and rely on each other--kind of like any family would.
My mother (Betty) was following last Saturday's game on "live stats" in New Jersey. I called her immediately after the game and she was very, very excited. The first thing she said was, "I should have been there" and she wanted to re-live the entire game. She also said that she's not going to miss the next one so she's driving over to Salem from New Jersey this week. When we were talking, I was reminded of the fact that when I was younger, one of my teams won the Summer Nationals in Salem, OR. We're in Salem again. Hopefully, it's a good omen.Q--What are three of four words you hope people would use to describe you?
GERCKENS--That I care for people, have integrity, enjoy life and love my family.
Q--What do you expect from your team this week? When you return to San Diego, what would need to happen this week in Salem for you to feel satisfied?
GERCKENS--I just hope we play good softball and have no regrets. After each game I want us to know that we gave it everything we had--quality at bats, playing good defense, competed hard and played our game.
If we go down, so be it--only one team can win. If we play our game, I'll be satisfied. Just because you may not win doesn't mean you don't have a bunch of winners on your team.
We would like to have to buy another seat on the airplane for the national championship trophy, though.
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