Amidst silver-dollar sized snowflakes pummeling in a relentless sideways howl, the resounding echo of singing players rang out across the College of DuPage’s chilled softball stadium. As winter’s lingering grasp scowled, the Chaparrals’ (2-4 in-conference) effervescent spirit signaled that once again spring is awakening. Taking on Harper College (3-3 in-conference), the athletes braved plummeting temperatures and worsening conditions until players’ safety took precedence, prompting an end to the competition in the bottom of the 5th inning.
After the called-game, I caught up with Coach Ryan Connell to discuss the program’s direction and his team’s ambitions for the season.
Since 1997, the College of DuPage softball team has gone to nationals 16 times. They have been in the national championship 8 times in that span, winning half of those championships.
Joey Weslo: Considering your program’s past successes, what are the goals for this team in meeting this season’s expectations?
Ryan Connell: At our level, we are one of the best, most winning softball teams in the country. Every year our goal is to win the national championship. We are in the toughest region in the country. We’ve won the national championship four times, and our local rival Rock Valley has also won it four times. We have to win regionals to qualify for nationals, and I believe our team has a great chance to challenge Rock Valley and achieve that this year.
Joey Weslo: As the season progresses, what areas do you want to see improvement in as a team?
Ryan Connell: If we can build our confidence, we will get better every time we play.
Joey Weslo: What sets COD’s softball program apart from other competitor’s programs to consistently maintain that success?
Ryan Connell: Constant support and the ability to dedicate the time required to make the program successful. We also have had consistency in coaches. Especially in a two-year school with a constant turnover of students, consistency in coaching helps develop a cohesiveness between the players and the program.
Joey Weslo: What things can you do as a coach to develop a bond and a further cohesiveness between the players?
Ryan Connell: I make sure that we focus on the mental aspect. We work on combining the physical part with the mental. We try to get our players to believe and gain the confidence it takes to come together as one group. They bond further as the season progresses. We also do fundraising where the girls work volleyball tournaments here at the college. That allows us to earn money to take a trip to Cocoa Beach, Fla. where we play over 10 games to enhance our team bonding.
Joey Weslo: What makes COD a good place for academic students to also participate in the athletic program?
Ryan Connell: COD has the facilities, and the support is second-to-none. I’ve been here for 13 years, and I’ve seen many student-athletes come in and say COD is better than a lot of Division I schools they have visited and considered. The funding and support we have is absolutely phenomenal. However, I would like to see more involvement of the student body in what we do, and further support for the team, especially given our consistent success.
Joey Weslo: Are there any incentives for the teammates to work together ensuring academic success?
Ryan Connell: We maintain a very good team GPA. I recruit girls who can excel both in the classroom and on the field. This commitment is why our teams have been so successful athletically as well as academically.
Joey Weslo: How does being a teammate here prepare student-athletes for the next step?
Ryan Connell: What we try to do is get our athletes to understand the overall responsibilities it takes to be a successful college athlete. It’s a lot of balance between work, life, school and athletic commitments. Our girls are taught how to do a good job balancing these successfully.
Joey Weslo: What type of a turn-over do you see as far as athletes continuing to play softball after COD?
Ryan Connell: If the student has the intention to play somewhere, we will help find a place for them. Last year’s team had 4 girls that continued, ranging from NCAA Division I to NIAA Division III. All in that spectrum, the opportunity is there for our players to keep playing. Our program is a great place for four-year schools to contact us recruiting specific positions. At four-year schools, a lot of the freshman and sophmores don’t get to see a lot of playing time, but here our girls gain immediate and persistent experience that makes them attractive to recruiters.
Joey Weslo: Do you have to groom them whether it’s maturity or athletically to prepare them for the next level?
Ryan Connell: Completely. The way we practice and the way we conduct ourselves is always with the intention of being prepared for a four-year school. Responsibility and respect is huge for our program.
Joey Weslo: What type of “pitch” would you make to current students who should consider the softball program? Why is your softball program the right place to fulfill themselves?
Ryan Connell: Our athletic department is phenomenal. If anybody is interested in our softball program, contact me. We consistently have a lot of fun and success.