It was a bit of a lark when Lisa Sweeney hooked on as a volunteer coach for the Lehigh University softball program for the 2010 season.
“It was my fifth year at Lehigh and as I worked on my masters, I wanted to be around my former teammates,” said Sweeney, who rewrote the record books during her sensational career for the Mountain Hawks, getting named as the Patriot League Pitcher of the Year four times. “I am a teacher by trade.”
But after that year, Sweeney got the chance to really get into the coaching trade.
“I got a phone call asking me to be assistant coach at Penn; recalled Sweeney, a 2009 Lehigh graduate.
“They were looking for a pitching coach; it is a fantastic school that I wanted to be part of. I wanted to see if I really wanted to coach.”
The answer to that question quickly became clear for Sweeney. “I fell in love with it; the uniqueness of the team and the fact that each individual brings something special to the team,” said Sweeney.
“You have to find a way to motivate everybody and get the players to improve everyday.”
Sweeney accomplished that goal, helping Penn to a 51-38-1 record over the last two seasons, including the 2012 Ivy South title. In addition, she helped guide freshman pitcher Alexis Borden to an outstanding debut campaign this spring as she earned Rookie of the Year and All-Ivy accolades.
Now Sweeney will be looking to help the Princeton University softball program improve as she took the helm of the Tigers last month.
While Sweeney acknowledges that her resume is a little slim, she is confident she can get the job done.
“It is certainly a fantastic opportunity; some may call it a leap as I have never been a head coach,” said Sweeney, the replacement for Trina Salcido, who stepped down this May.
“Gary [Princeton Director of Athletics Gary Walters] has done a fantastic job of encouraging young coaches and putting trust in them. I don’t have the experience but I have the right resources to be successful.”
Sweeney, though, has been around Division I softball for a long time. “I was lucky as a kid, growing up around my sister and sister-in-law who both played at the D-1 level at college,” said Sweeney, a native of Lumberton, N.J.
“I went to a bunch of their games. I got to be around college softball and have an idea of what it is about and I wanted to be part of that.”
During her career at Rancocas Valley Regional High, Sweeney certainly marked herself as a player headed to a college career.
The right-hander was a two-time Courier Post South Jersey Player of the year and threw a no-hitter in the state Group IV championship game as a senior to cap a senior season which saw her go 31-2 with an ERA of 0.15.
“We had a really fun team: I loved the day-to-day interaction,” said Sweeney, reflecting on her high school career.
“All of us were really competitive; many of us had dreams of playing in college. Finally senior year, we won the state title. We had been to the semis before that. We had a good group of seniors.”
Sweeney’s dream of playing college ball came true at Lehigh University. “Lehigh had that balance b etween academics and athletics but was really competitive,” said Sweeney. “It had a track record of high achievement and attracting really good players.”
Being around those kind of players was inspirational for Sweeney. “With the name of college across your chest, there is a different accountability and a pressure to play for your school,” said Sweeney.
“Lehigh may not be a big-name D-1 team but wearing brown and white, we were doing everything we could to win. There was a different energy and intensity everyday in practice.”
Sweeney got a first-hand taste of that energy and winning spirit in her debut campaign as Lehigh went 43-14 overall and 19-1 in Patriot action on the way to making it to an NCAA regional title game.
“Competing for Patriot League title and automatic bid to NCAA tournament is something to play for,” added Sweeney.
“We didn’t just want to win our league, we wanted to win a regional. In my freshman year, we knocked off Texas A&M in the regional and they were No. 13 or something like that in the country. That was the culmination of a lot of hard work and camaraderie. We built a true team on and off the field; I never took it for granted.”
Over the rest of her career, Sweeney never stopped excelling, ending up as the top pitcher in Patriot history in wins (94), shutouts (31) and strikeouts (928). But while Sweeney is proud of those records, she wasn’t focused on statistics during her college career.
“I think what they speak to is that I did everything I could for the team to be successful,” said Sweeney, who was the league’s Player of the Year in 2008 and also earned Academic All-American recognition.
“Whatever awards or records I have are the result of doing my best for the team.”
In Sweeney’s view, the Princeton team has the foundation in place to compete with the best in the Ivy League.
“I think it is a program that has had ups and downs the last few years,” said Sweeney, who is taking over a club that went 14-32 overall this spring with an 8-12 Ivy mark.
“They have had some standout weekends, like battling Cornell last year. You can see the resilience of Princeton and the character of the kids in the program. The girls are really special and not just for academic excellence. The softball program has a huge tradition of success.”
Sweeney is determined to add to that tradition of success. “I am a huge team person; I see power in the group,” said Sweeney.
“We have a strong group of young women and building on that is really important. I want to instill a commitment to excellence and doing whatever we can do on a daily basis to get better. I am looking forward to getting started; 2012-13 is going to be a good year for Princeton softball.”