The following two-part article appeared in the Army Official Sports Report and was written by John Ferro.
Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part story profiling softball head coach Michelle DePolo.
WEST POINT, N.Y. – Michelle DePolo can tell you exactly the day when the press release came out announcing she had been named the next women’s softball coach at the United States Military Academy.
“It was April Fools Day,” she said with a laugh.
The timing was coincidental, if not poetic. But then again, DePolo’s journey has been marked by coincidental twists of fate and a poetic matching of passion and career.
DePolo is 29 years old. When Army opens its season this weekend at the George Mason Tournament in Fairfax, Va., she will be the youngest coach to head the program and the first woman to do so.
The newest Army coach grew up a mile from the United States Military Academy’s prep school at Fort Monmouth, N.J. As a young star at Red Bank High School, she dreamed of playing softball at West Point, but knew that a heart condition she had been born with would keep her from passing the academy’s physical exam.
The son of Bob Mueller, the longtime athletic director at the prep school, had been a catcher at Red Bank High School. One of the pitchers he caught was DePolo’s older brother.
As a young, aspiring coach, she began her career as a volunteer coach at the prep school in 2003-04, taking a program that had gone winless the year before and leading them to a 13-1 record, the finest record in school history – all for no pay.
When she was in graduate school at Smith College, she had a class where she had to create a mock institution to use as the frame for a project about how she would run a college program.
“The project included making a schedule, budget, everything like that,” she said. “I made up a fictitious institution, but I framed it after West Point.”
There was one difference, though.
“I made it located in San Diego,” she said with a laugh. “Warm all the time.”
As an assistant coach at Smith College in 2005-06 and then Amherst College the following season, she made a point of tracking the Army softball program, and in particular the members of her prep school team who were still playing at West Point. She took trips, sometimes driving six hours, to catch a game and stay in touch with the players, and head coach Jim Flowers.
“I made a habit of getting in his way,” she said. “He would see me at a lot of recruiting tournaments, and at a lot of games and practices. So I made a good habit of showing up.”
When a position on Flowers staff opened up, she got a call. Would she be willing to join the staff as an assistant coach? She was in the first year of graduate school at the time.
“I basically said, ‘Am I interested?’” she said. “I said, ‘I will move right now if you need me to. I’ll leave school. There is not a better opportunity I could want more. This is the job I want to do.’ ”
Flowers told her to stay in graduate school. When the position opened up again in a year, Flowers asked again. DePolo accepted. Indeed, she finished graduate school on May 22, 2007. The next day, she piled her stuff into a truck, drove to West Point and started working that night.
When Flowers decided it was time to retire after nearly 20 seasons, once again he turned to DePolo. Would she be willing to be a head coach? The answer was obvious.
“He practically had to kick me out of the office sometimes,” she said. “But it wasn’t work. It was softball. It was fun. Everything about it was fun.”
Flowers announced his retirement and backed DePolo as his replacement. On April Fools Day, 2009, it became official.
This weekend, the new era begins. And no one is happier about it than Michelle DePolo. There is no foolin’ about that.
Coming tomorrow: DePolo reflects on her days coaching at the prep school and at the academy.
Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part story profiling softball head coach Michelle DePolo.
WEST POINT, N.Y. – When Michelle DePolo arrived at West Point as an assistant softball coach in May of 2007, there were some familiar faces on the team.
DePolo, now Army's newest head softball coach, had begun her career in 2003-04, coaching the United States Military Academy Prep School's team at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Taking over a moribund program – the prep school team had not won a game the previous season – she led the softball team to a 13-1 record.
The win total included a doubleheader sweep of the defending junior college national champion, Brookdale Community College of nearby Lincroft, N.J. (which, by the way, had tried to recruit DePolo when she was a high school star at Red Bank Regional High School in Little Silver, N.J.).
Three years later, DePolo was back coaching softball within the academy system, this time as an assistant under Jim Flowers. And among the juniors who had just finished up the 2007 spring season team were catcher Mary Ann Kearney and second baseman Jessica Garza, who had both played at the prep school before coming to West Point.
DePolo had stayed in touch with her former players from the prep school, and had come to their games and some practices while she was attending graduate school. Now she had landed a job at West Point in time for their senior year.
"The first day I showed up and got introduced to them, it was great," she said. "I couldn't wait to see how much they had matured."
The whole thing came together on the last weekend in April, 2008. Army was 10-36 and 5-11 in the Patriot League heading into its final regular-season series against league-leading Lafayette (12-4, 22-18). The Black Knights had not qualified for the Patriot League tournament. Even with a sweep, they would need help from other teams in the league to qualify.
"I think at a certain point, even some of the fans and the coaching staff were ready to play out the weekend," DePolo said. "But I remember Mary Ann Kearney talking to me the Friday night before, saying we're not going to play this out. We're going to win. We're going to come out and play as hard as we can."
Kearney's single with one out in the bottom of the eighth snapped a 1-1 tie in the first game, as the Black Knights shocked Lafayette, 2-1. Army lost the nightcap, but swept the two games, 5-2 and 7-2, on Sunday – Senior Day. The Black Knights had qualified for the tournament, and DePolo had seen yet another example of why she believes she has landed the best coaching job in the world.
"These people were going to be sent off to the Army in weeks," she said. "They could have thrown it in and not cared and decided to live it up during their last few weeks of school here, before they got sent to the Army and ultimately deployed. Instead, they decided to bring it together for themselves. When you see someone make a decision for themselves – but at the same time with the intention of everybody else at heart – it's what it's all about. It's selfless service. It's something that you can't put a price on."
This spring, DePolo embarks on her first year as Army's newest softball coach, as well as the youngest one in the program's history and the first woman. At 29, she is doing what she has dreamed of doing – coaching softball, and doing it at West Point.
And it's days like that April weekend in 2008 – and many more ahead – that will remind her of how special that opportunity is.
"I want to do the absolute best job I can," she said, "in order to provide the best opportunity for the young women that come to this program, and to be a steward of the program. I take a great deal of pride in what has already been done to establish this program. It's more of a privilege every day to be here and to be accepted as part of it."
The debut of first-year Army softball coach Michelle DePolo has been put on hold for the second time as the Black Knights' trip to Fairfax, Va., this weekend for the George Mason Patriot Classic has been cancelled because of unplayable field conditions.
Army's season debut at the Georgia State Classic slated for Feb. 13-14 was cancelled because of snow with severe weather conditions in the Northeast forcing the Black Knights second tournament to fall by the wayside. Army was slated to play Monmouth and George Mason on Saturday, Feb. 27, and IPFW and the host Patriots Sunday (Feb. 28) in Fairfax, Va.
DePolo, the first coach to lead Army's softball team at the Division I level, will have to wait until next weekend to make her debut when the Black Knights head to Washington, D.C., to participate in the annual Colonial Classic, March 6-7. Army opens with Canisius along with host George Washington University on Saturday (March 6), and closes with Binghamton and the Colonials on Sunday (March 7).