Marissa Leslie is entering her first season as the head coach of Shepherd University’s women’s softball team. She sat down with The Picket to talk about her coaching philosophy, what the team’s expectations are for this season, and plenty of other important topics about the team. Her responses were edited for brevity.
What drew you to Shepherd originally?
There were a lot of things I think that drew me here. One, the location was a big impact just because I’m kind of familiar with the area. I previously came from West Virginia Wesleyan College, where I was an assistant there, so we had come here for a couple times and so I knew a little bit about Shepherd. It’s a great recruiting area. I think that it’s somewhere where I can be successful. I didn’t want to start my career at just any job. I wanted to have the opportunity to be successful, and I think that this area in general provides for that. And then, after all my interviewing [and] after speaking with the athletic department and the staff here, I just felt very welcomed. It felt like a good environment that I knew I would enjoy working in, so it was kind of a combination of everything and it all worked out so far.
How does your bachelors degree in exercise science and your masters degree in performance enhancement and injury prevention help you with your preparation for the team?
Well, there’s a lot that goes into softball that’s just not sports-specific. I think that that background of understanding the body and being able to physically prepare them for any challenge that we are going to face as a team provides for that. I create the workouts for the girls in the weight room and we have a head strength and conditioning coach that oversees and checks everything off as we go. I’m able to work out with the girls and train them and get them physically prepared for what challenges we may face.
What will you take from your time at West Virginia Wesleyan and apply here at Shepherd? And what is your overall coaching philosophy in terms of discipline and on-the-field tactics?
I was fortunate enough when I was at West Virginia Wesleyan College to work under Steve Warner. He has been at West Virginia Wesleyan for over 25 years and has been very successful there. That’s originally why I went there to mentor under him and get a good background as an assistant. I’ve got good knowledge of how to manage a ball field, which I enjoy, but there was a lot I took from there.
First off, there is discipline. It’s everything. That’s actually my favorite word to use. I talk to the girls about being disciplined. They have until up about mid terms, and then we start a schedule that we’re traveling two or three times a week or playing two and three times a week, and that gets tedious, so having them be disciplined and make sure that they’re managing their grades, and they’re getting the sleep, and they’re not getting sick to prevent them from practicing well or performing well. The student always comes first before the athlete, but to manage both you have to be very disciplined and I preach that all the time to the girls.
Pitching plays a huge role in a team’s success, and I think we’re pretty fortunate this year to have a good pitching staff, but beyond that, you really have to hit to win a ball game. Defense is going to keep you in the game, but if you’re not producing runs, then you’re not going to win. I have that in the back of my mind beyond pitching. I’m a very offensive-minded coach. We’re going to have to be able to hit to win. We’re going to have to be able to produce runs. We practice a lot of bunts and hit-and-run situations. I like to move. I like to steal. Anything that really can put an outside pressure on the defense, where they’re not sure of what’s coming, or they know that this might be a factor, so they have that in the back of their mind and keep them on their heels a little bit.
What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses overall of this pitching staff so far through offseason practices and your in-season practices now?
Our strength is that we have pretty smart pitchers. One of our seniors is a pitcher, and she‘ll be a big role player for us. She has a lot of experience coming in, but Kate Munda will do very well for us on the mound, bringing her knowledge and past history of game experience.
Another big impact pitcher is going to be our junior pitcher, Lor Sturgill. She has experience, brings a little bit more heat, she throws a little bit harder. She’s our only righty on our staff, so that will be a good thing, With her speed, we’re just going to have to focus on locating that pitch and where she’s actually throwing that ball, and kind of be on our toes as an outfield.
We have a sophomore, Taylor Stocks. She’s a transfer from Fordham University. She went to Musselman High School, so she’s getting back into the swing of things. We just brought her on in the beginning of the year. She’s a very smart player. Her knowledge of the game and understanding hitters and making mechanical adjustments there will really benefit her.
And then we have a freshman, Cheyenne Van Pelt. We have a pitcher in every class, which is a good thing. Our freshman doesn’t have huge college experience but she has a lot of state experience in travel ball. She has a little bit more movement to her ball than the rest of our pitchers.
In terms of our weaknesses, we’re not going to be on all the time. We’ve seen in practices where they have their good days and they have their bad days, but that’s with everybody: a hitter, a defender, a pitcher alike. Our being able to locate the ball consistently is going to be a challenge. I think, too, is keeping cool under pressure. I really haven’t seen the girls compete, except in the fall.
Has there been an area where you feel like in the off-season and now in the start of the season you were surprised at, either in a good way or a bad way, in terms of what you thought you had on the roster and what you didn’t have?
I can definitely say yes to both. What may have surprised me as a weakness was our pitchers’ control. However, that was very early on and I think that what they’ve shown lately has greatly improved.
Pitcher Lori Sturgill had surgery. She really hadn’t pitched all fall and really didn’t start getting back into pitching until she came back from winter break, so I was little bit apprehensive and a little nervous/anxious to see what she was going to bring and how well she was going to recover. So far she’s been doing well for us in practice. I think games will be challenging once she starts throwing a bit more. Of course she’s still limited on pitches.
I was surprised at just how athletic the team is as a whole. We can move kids around. They seem to handle the challenges pretty well. They have a good understanding of each position and where plays need to be. Consistency’s important and I don’t want to go and move players around all the time, but just the fact that if somebody does get hurt or we have to make a shift, I think that we’ll be able to still compete.
What are the overall expectations for this team and how high is this team’s actual potential do you think? And what would be a disappointing season in your estimation?
From day one we’ve been talking on where we want to go as a team and where we think that we can actually, realistically achieve. Again with that taste of success that they had from last year, that’s been a driving force, and I think that we can achieve all of the things that the team did last year.
We are going to be missing some key components, but overall, we still have a very strong leadership. We have four seniors and seven juniors, so we’re a very mature team and having that kind of base will allow us to realistically move forward.
We have our sights set on winning the North Division of the conference. The team has done that the past two years. Competing for a conference championship is another big one for us. I think that’s very realistic with the talent that we have and pitching staff and the freshmen that we’ve brought onto the team.
We might come up short in some big games, but what I have learned about the girls and what I love about them is that they don’t give up, no matter the challenge they’ve been faced with, whether it’s a smaller offseason challenge or whatever it may be, they just don’t give up and they don’t back down. They always come to practice working hard. As long as we’re working hard and we’re trying to move forward, I will be pleased with that.
They say ’It’s not about the end product, it’s the process leading up to that point,’ so as long as we’re making effort in the process, it’s not necessarily the result that we’re focused on. But again, we do want to achieve those results in terms of winning our North Division and competing for a conference championship, and we have our sights on trying to get into the NCAA playoffs again.
Who do you see as the leaders on this team?
I like to view everybody as a leader. My philosophy is it’s just not one or two or three people. I think that everybody brings a little bit something to the table that maybe somebody else doesn’t bring, so whether they’re a freshman, a sophomore, a junior, or a senior, we really encourage everybody to bring that and share their experiences and share their knowledge. Some girls are more talkers on the field, sometimes some more are off-the-field leaders in terms of discipline and keeping the group focused and knowing when to do their academics and when it’s time for the social life and to have fun, but everybody in my eyes is a leader whenever they bring something to the table that no one else can bring.
Is there a girl on the team that gets everyone on the team in a good mood, kind of like the jokester type, whenever things might be rough on the field or off it?
Yes there is. That would be Allison Baker. She’s so funny. It doesn’t matter what kind of mood I’m in, she is often times doing something goofy or just does something that you didn’t expect to happen in the moment. She can get me laughing now matter how mad I am or unhappy I am. She can lighten the mood.
Who do you see as your biggest threats in the MEC? Do any teams in particular stand out to you?
West Virginia Wesleyan is coming off of a great season last year and still has some pretty good core players. Coach Warner always puts a good product on the field.
I think UVa-Wise brings a lot to the table, too. They have a strong group, very strong kid on the mound, she’s been successful for the last three years. She took a year off and came back and she’s still able to throw lights out, so with her on the mound, they’re going to be tough.
Wheeling Jesuit, they have a senior lefty on their mound, and she gave Shepherd fits last year. She’s going to be a good pitcher, so it will be challenging to face them. She throws pretty hard.
I think that some of the teams that may not have finished very well in the conference last year will surprise people. West Virginia State’s going to surprise people, as well as Fairmont State and West Liberty, and even Charleston, they’re going to be very strong teams. We just can’t take a day off. Everybody is going to be a challenge.
The Rams open up the season in the Coker Spring Tournament in Hartsville, South Carolina, on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 24. Shepherd will play Bloomsburg University at 3 p.m. on Saturday, followed by King University (Tenn.) at 5:30 p.m.
On Sunday afternoon, Feb. 25, the Rams also have two games in the tournament. Their first game on Sunday will be against West Virginia University Institute of Technology. At 1p.m., Shepherd will take on Coker College at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
Anthony Bracken is the sports editor of The Picket. He can be reached at email@example.com