Pick a fastpitch strategy with a bit of nuance – ways to defend against the bunt, for example – and the Internet will shower you with dozens of links and options.
But those theories barely came at a trickle when John Corn first got serious about coaching the sport nearly 20 years ago. And while a lack of sophisticated thinking was evident in softball scene, even more incriminating was the average coach’s approach with the athlete. As Corn began to assemble a foundation for his own club, which became the Lady Lightning program out of North Carolina, it was on that last short-sighted issue that he felt needed some laser-guided attention.
“When I first got into it, the way they were teaching the girls to play was very elementary. It was ‘just catch the ball and throw everything to first,’ and I felt like the girls had a capacity to play the game at a higher speed,” said Corn, who coaches the 18u Gold Lady Lightning squad that has firmly established itself in the Triple Crown top 25 rankings over several years. “There just wasn’t anybody teaching that. It was like we were coddling the girls, and on the boys side with baseball, we were always challenging them to be better, move faster, do things harder.
“My approach was, girls should be able to do the same things as close as they possibly can, with the skill set they have. Why not teach them and see if they can? You don’t know if you don’t try. I took my limited background in baseball (one year of college) and brought more of a baseball philosophy to a girls sport when I was asked to get involved.”
Shane Sherlund, another coach for the 18’s, remembers when his daughter caught static for pursuing opportunities within the sport. Girls sports were seen in some circles as a curiosity, and not appreciated for the avenues that opened up for accomplished athletes.
“In high school, if my daughter had to miss school during the week, the counselors didn’t understand why she needed to miss school,” Sherlund said. “The teachers would push back, saying you’ll fall behind in school, and it took a while for them to realize she was onto something. She basically had her scholarship in hand, she knew where she was going to school, and there were certain things she had to do to maintain that situation. In Texas and California, girls had a better model to work from.”
Today, the Lady Lightning rumbles through tournaments with national flagship teams in 12u, 14u, 16u and 18u, and there are more than 20 other teams under the banner that compete in their own right as well as develop players who move up when the timing is right and also work to earn scholarships. Corn began coaching in 1999 after a group of parents and players asked him to consider running a travel team, and by 2005 his eyes were on the horizon, looking for interesting matchups and ways to help his players evolve.
“Around then I was tinkering with qualifying for ASA (nationals), because no one in our area was doing it. I wanted to be the guy who was different; if there was a good tournament in Alaska, I want to go,” Corn said. “I want to know what else is out there. We failed miserably at first. In 2013, we won 21 straight games, and that was a milestone year. We went to PGF, took ninth in back-to-back (nationals). If you look at the TCS rankings, we’re in a mix of about 20 programs, and for us to be in that mix, that’s good company for a team that comes from an area with very few great players.”
The Lady Lightning does have a persistent way, however, of funneling players to some of the top NCAA programs around. Corn had the idea about eight years ago to do some dedicated team building retreats that included keynote speakers, demanding workouts and chances for players to get comfortable with each other – working on the ground floor of what a player needs to see and feel to perform in competition.
Put that kind of mentally tough athlete on a roster with others having the same approach, and you begin to grasp how the Lady Lightning make impacts on brackets around the country.
“That was one of the things I really loved about Lady Lightning; we were able to naturally come together as a team, even though we had the individual goal of getting recruited. Our chemistry and how well we got along was a big deal, how we helped each other out,” said Emily Heimberger, a junior utility player for Mississippi State who played for Corn. “We’d do bonding activities, take a trip every year where we learned more about each other, built the teamwork, and John did a great job of emphasizing that. We never had problems with selfishness; we played as one unit.
“He had high expectations, but I thought it was great. Those expectations shaped us into the well-rounded players and people we became. It can be difficult making that transition from high school ball to travel organizations, but once you figure out how it works and how demanding it is, the time you have to put in … it really pays off when the goal is to get to the next level , college ball. Before I joined the Lightning, I never considered playing ball in college. Once I joined, and got a look at how hard you have to work and how intense that level is, that’s what made me realize I wanted to play in college. I loved every minute of it.”
“With John’s team, playing against girls committed to Alabama, Georgia and all that, I got an awakening about what I’d be dealing with if I wanted to keep pursuing Division I. It wasn’t a shock; it was more exciting because I’m very competitive, and this made the sport more fun, to play with girls as competitive as I was,” said senior Calyn Adams, a senior infielder/catcher for MSU. “Playing with Lady Lightning helped me realize the fitness level I needed to reach if I wanted to play in the SEC or Division I at all. Talking with some of the seniors who had committed and doing their summer workouts, sharing with me what they had to do.
“Speaking with John about being versatile and playing multiple positions makes you more appealing to a lot of coaches – that was really helpful. Also, being a smart player (is important), and John helped me there the most, understanding the game and being able to teach younger players the game. I was a pretty good player when I joined the Lightning, and when I left I was a great player because mostly of the mental skills John, the other coaches and players helped me to refine.”
Corn has a very centered, calm perspective on the hard work he must do – keeping a fastpitch club up and running in a time where players are often tugged at from rival organizations, and where even his own athletes might be tempted to jump to other places in the chase for opportunities.
The Lady Lightning certainly aren’t hurting for unique experiences, playing in the Canada Cup this summer, and taking on the Czech Republic’s national team back in February. The coaching staff knows this is what keeps the club dynamic and interesting, and a place where the phone is always ringing as 8u and 10u teams from multiple states try to get their squads on the Lady Lightning lineup.
“There are a lot of routes for kids to go, where there are financial benefits with certain programs, and one might be a cheaper route. I’m a guy that believes, if your family doesn’t have skin in the game, then why am I working so hard to get kids to find the right college to play at?” Corn said. “It’s really easy to get a Marissa Runyon (senior at Alabama) into a college. Some families put in the blood, sweat and tears to help us help the kids; others, it doesn’t matter what you do for them, and it’s like trading cars. We do everything we can to weed out the fly-by-night players, the pickup for one year player … if I get a phone call from a coach who has a player, committed to a school, needs to move up from a smaller program, asking if I have room … maybe. I try not to make any waves.
“I don’t lose a lot of sleep about who’s coming and who’s going. My philosophy has become this … I had a parent ask me, what separates your team and your program from other teams and other programs? I said, here it is … I’m going to have a tryout, and I don’t care if you show up or not. If you don’t, someone else will be there and I’ll help that kid. It’s up to you.”
And at the other end of that process, the Lady Lighting just keep coming, using their team development recipe to build rosters that continually draw interest from colleges. The program also draws attention – when they spring an upset over more well-known clubs.
“We do not have access to the most talented players in the country. For us, it’s building team chemistry and the bonds we need to be successful when we do go out to California,” Sherlund said. “It’s making sure the girls trust each other and trust the coaches, the coaches trust the players – it’s the team concept. We also challenge the girls every time we go out, all preparing for that trip.”
“We took a lot of pride in that; we had fun with (being unknown),” Heimberger said. “We’d go to any tournament out West and take pride in being a small team from North Carolina that no one’s probably heard of, and we want to go out and make a name for ourselves, that out East we can play, too.”
“A lot of people think because a team is based out of North Carolina, they won’t be as competitive or talented as a team from Texas or California, where you can play year-round,” Adams added. “From Day 1, that was something John really focused on, being fast … he would preach you have to be just as fast, and there’s no reason you can’t be. He emphasized competing, and in my years we beat a lot of really great teams. It was a lot of fun, and that was something he focused on … not settling.”
With two daughters who not only loved softball, but also had the tenacity to truly develop their talent, Darrell Landry ended up doing what a lot of fathers do in that situation — start coaching.
Landry, 54, is the general manager of the Marucci Patriots, based in and around Baton Rouge, LA. The Louisiana Patriots date back to the 1970s; Landry’s daughter Courtney jumped in with the Patriots in 2004, and Bailey also came through the system and graduated from LSU in 2017.
As coach, Landry started in an era where local tournaments drew the interest of teams and parents, but as that changed with the maturation of club softball, so did Landry. He had coached Ascension Catholic High School to a state championship game in 2009; soon he saddled up with the Patriots and brought back the defunct 18u program in 2012.
The Patriots have been a factor ever since, not playing very much in Louisiana any more but looking to get players and teams on the road, in elite competitions, in front of college coaches. Landry visited the Triple Crown Sports offices a few weeks ago and sat down to share a little history and perspective on the game he loves.
Q: As you took over the 18u piece of the Patriots, what were your priorities?
A: I saw it as an opportunity to get kids seen at the collegiate level, and to get them prepared. That was my whole focus; local tournaments didn’t mean a whole lot. I can have all the T-shirts and trophies I want with the kids I could develop, but the idea was to get these kids a college scholarship. I wanted them to be serious; this wasn’t a hang-out situation. In 2012, all five seniors all signed, and nine signed next year. We started off in big tournaments and didn’t know what we were doing, to be honest.
My team has always been based on Louisiana kids; I won’t go out and recruit from six different states, eight states away, pay someone’s way or buy kids. Our players are developed through our program. Just running the 18s, I didn’t have control of the organization, and I found I was rebuilding that 18u team every year. With the 14s and 16s – I couldn’t (control development). I might take two or three, or I might not. I had to go looking for kids around the state and area.
Q: How did Marucci get involved with the Patriots?
A: Marucci had approached me before. They came back when they wanted to get into softball (the company is based in Baton Rouge), and they saw us as the premier club in the state. They wanted to learn from us, see what elite players are looking for, and I thought it would be good for kids to see that part of the company grow from scratch. Marucci had no knowledge of softball. Those first bats weren’t very good, and we gave them feedback. They’d lay out a bunch of unmarked bats and ask, how’s it feel? When it came to gloves, the girls want it up their wrist tight, with Velcro … and they kept adjusting things through our feedback. We were part of that first group that helped design their products, and there was value for our kids to see how a company grows.
Q: What’s something about upper-level softball that troubles you?
A: This early recruiting thing – it gets on my nerves. I don’t have 7th or 8th graders committed, and I would advise any of my kids not to. I don’t feel it’s fair to a kid or a coach. It’s almost like exploitation; there’s no way you can know where a kid is going to be (developmentally) in four or five years. Life changes so much and you don’t know where the kids’ dreams or work ethic might be at; it can change dramatically either way. We have these young kids coming to us, and their No. 1 question is, how do I get recruited? When my daughters came through, it was about learning the fundamentals of the game and getting better every day.
I had a freshman get a huge offer from a huge school; I didn’t think she was ready, and I advised her not to commit. And I told the coach the same thing.
I’m not going to lie to a college coach. I tell them about strengths and weaknesses. I never oversell a kid; never have and never will. The kid needs to know, too – their life is going to change.
Q: What keeps you coming back to the diamond year after year?
A: I’ve always been competitive as a person, player and coach. It’s always about getting to the next level and winning that big crown, but also seeing the kids have success. I’m at the point where kids I coached have graduated from college; last year, I had two kids (Louisiana State’s Bailey Landry and Arizona transfer Aleah Craighton) make first-team NFCA All-American who played for my first team, two of the three outfield spots, and they only lived a mile apart. And you’re talking about thousands of kids playing softball … I’m not saying I had a lot to do with it, but there it is.
Those are fulfilling moments. Also, my niece (Megan Landry) at Nicholls State, she’s been pitching since she was a freshman. What she does is amazing; she’s a Godly kid, and I can see her Godliness spreading to other kids on that team. That program has been winning, and I think it has something to do with us because we’ve sent two or three there every year the last four or five years. There was a game where seven of the starting nine was from my program! I was proud of that.
We had 71 seniors from 2012 to now, and all have signed college scholarships and played. To me, it could change their lives. You send kids off, and there’s a good chance it creates a direction in their life, hopefully for the good, where maybe they meet the person of their dreams and a partner for life. And you had a part of that.
SportsEngine, a division of NBC Sports Group, today announced a partnership agreement between its tournament management solution, Tourney Machine, and Fort Collins, Colorado-based, Triple Crown Sports (TCS), a longtime leader in producing impactful youth events from coast to coast.
Part of the SportsEngine platform of services, Tourney Machine facilitates team registration, schedule management and results tracking all in one place for fans, coaches and teams. TCS is a leading tournament operations company throughout the US with over 200 events and more than 18,000 teams per year. TCS will utilize Tourney Machine’s scheduling, scoring, and tournament management technology to operate all of their youth baseball, softball, lacrosse and basketball tournaments making Tourney Machine the official tournament technology partner of TCS.
Additionally, Tourney Machine will enable its external API services to allow TCS to consume data from its own tournaments and track team and player participation. The use of advanced features such as real-time alerts, schedule updates and live scoring through the Tourney Machine mobile app, will assist TCS in operating their events more efficiently.
“We’re very proud to become the official technology partner of Triple Crown Sports,” said Justin Kaufenberg, CEO of SportsEngine. “With our shared commitment to youth sports combined with TCS’s solid reputation as the leader in providing premium youth sports experiences and events, we’re excited to empower TCS with with the technology solutions that will help fuel its growth and further their mission.”
“We are excited to form this partnership with Tourney Machine to strengthen the technology, tools and resources we offer to our teams and their families,” said Keri King, CEO of Triple Crown Sports. “Moving away from our own proprietary scheduling software will allow TCS to focus on our purpose statement — to bring athletes and families together in competition and create experiences that embed lasting lifetime memories. Tourney Machine is robust software with the mobile user in mind; it will enhance the TCS experience.”
“We are all really excited for the impact and the value our customers will quickly appreciate with our newest tech partner,” said Elliott Finkelstein, TCS director of fastpitch. “Tourney Machine will help give our users a much improved experience.”
This year marks the third Triple Crown NAIA College Classic, slated for Feb. 9-11, 2018, and presented by the TCS California fastpitch franchise. It’s one of the true unique gems on the schedule, as more than 10 NAIA programs descend on the Big League Dreams complex in West Covina, CA, to show their stuff.
On Friday evening, the NAIA teams and any interested high-schoolers will be invited to the Biola University campus for a session of Church in the Dirt; the event features U.S. Olympian Jennie Finch and Team USA members Ali Aguilar, Aubree Munro, Michelle Moultrie and Nikki Udria. On Saturday evening and Sunday morning, these athletes will be on hand at BLD to interact with the NAIA and youth players on hand.
The level of play will be terrific, and it’s also a chance for youth players in the area who are eyeballing a college career to get as look at the NAIA brand up close. Here’s a capsule look at the teams coming to West Covina – click HERE for the schedule.
California University-Marymount (Palos Verdes, CA) – The Mariners went 18-25 last year and now welcome new coach Shane Schumaker. His hopes for a turnaround get a major boost from sophomore center fielder Nicole Barrow (.341, 42 starts, 9 SB), junior shortstop Princess Nava (.321) and pitcher Mary Gonzlaes, who won 10 games a year ago and hit .316 with 22 RBI.
Carroll College (Helena, MT) – The Saints had a 2017 record of 15-21; look for another year of solid production from Anna ApRoberts, a sophomore who hit .287 last year. Ashley Davis (.359) and Allison Bayer (.358) are also back in the fold.
Hope International (Fullerton, CA) – The Royals wrapped up 2017 with a 30-17 record, the best-ever win total for the program. Justice Walker returns after hitting .370 with 13 triples and 31 stolen bases in 2017; pitcher Tori Banks won 15 games last year and had a 2.52 ERA.
La Sierra University (Riverside, CA) – The Golden Eagles’ roster is going through some serious churn, with 20 players coming aboard in this June’s recruiting class. The team finished 22-24-1 last year but has some punch coming back in Genifer Garbellini (.416, 35 RBI) and Berlyn Benavides (.338, 29 stolen bases).
Menlo College (Atherton, CA) – The Oaks had a 31-18 record last season and have more than a few key contributors returning in sophomore pitcher Victoria Cervantes (14 wins, 1.91 ERA) and infielders Cassie Grana (started all 49 games, hitting .322) and Bryce Etzler (team-high .386 with 13 doubles).
Northwest Christian (Eugene, OR) – There’s nowhere to go but up for the Beacons, who are back in the fight after going 4-38 last season. Avery Daniels started every game as a freshman and was second on the team with 30 hits and led the team with 19 RBI.
Ottawa University (Phoenix, AZ) – The Spirit is a brand-new enterprise athletically; 21 sports sprang to life in August 2017. The softball team’s head coach is Lee Dobbins, who has 20 years of experience coaching in college.
San Diego Christian College (Santee, CA) – The Hawks will look for a bounce from new coach Sarah Hershman-McGrath; the team was 26-23 last season and welcomes back all-league junior outfielder Jordan Neal (.368, 8 HR last year).
Southern Oregon University (Ashland, OR) – The Raiders had a breakout season last year, going 46-15 and reaching the final six of the NAIA World Series. All-American shortstop Kelsey Randall is back for her senior campaign after hitting .431 last year (she added 10 triples and 29 stolen bases), as is catcher classmate Harlee Donovan (.367, 11 HR, 63 RBI). Three returning pitchers combined to win 40 game last season with a 1.73 ERA.
Vanguard University (based in Costa Mesa, CA) – The Lions went 46-15 last season, reaching the first round of the NAIA World Series. Coach Beth Renkoski is back for her 22nd season.
William Jessup University (Rocklin, CA) – The Warriors closed last year at 22-17, and pitcher Shelbi Graifman returns after ringing up 14 wins with a 2.12 ERA. There’s a nice buzz around the program, which reached the Golden State Athletic Conference championship game for the first time last spring.