Coming off back-to-back state titles, the Academy at the Lakes Wildcats varsity softball team will have a new face leading the successful program.
Wildcats coach Diane Stephenson stepped down after the 2019 season to accept a position closer to her home at St. Petersburg’s Admiral Farragut Academy. A two-time Class 2A Softball Coach of the Year, Stephenson posted a 65-14 mark in three seasons with the Wildcats —steering the program to three straight district titles, three straight region finals and two state championships, respectively.
Replacing her is Elizabeth Munn, a veteran prep coach from the Midwest who also boasts NCAA Division I coaching experience.
The 36-year-old Munn spent the past three years as head coach at York High School in Elmhurst, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She posted a combined 54-41-1, including a 28-14-1 mark and Illinois High School Association state semifinals appearance in 2018.
Prior to her stint at York, Munn held assistant coaching gigs at Division I Stanford, North Carolina State and Northwestern universities, respectively, primarily working with outfielders, and strength and conditioning. She also was a head coach at South Suburban College, a junior college in South Holland, Illinois.
Her college playing career likewise has taken a windy path, to multiple countries, in fact.
Beginning at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, Munn transferred to Queensland, Australia’s James Cook University, then finished her playing career as a walk-on at Indiana University.
The blend of high school and college experience makes Munn an ideal fit for Academy at the Lakes, said Tom Haslam, the school’s athletic director.
“Her resume is outstanding,” he said. “She’s done well, had success at a rather large suburban Chicago high school, and just all that good looked.
“We think she’s going to do an excellent job.” he said.
Munn arrived on Haslam’s radar after her York teams faced Academy at the Lakes in Florida spring break tournaments the past two seasons. Munn also was recommended as suitable replacement by Stephenson herself, Haslam said.
Moreover, the Wildcats athletic director said Munn’s coaching philosophy aligns similarly with the private school’s culture.
Haslam said Munn embraced the school’s no-cut policy and its philosophy of encouraging players to participate in multiple sports and extracurricular activities.
By the same token, Munn brings a winning mindset, the athletic director said.
“She’s certainly not daunted about taking over a successful program. I think she’s ready for it,” Haslam said.
“I think she’s structured and I think she’s organized, and I think she’s going to hold their feet to the fire about hard work and showing up and things like that…but, she also understands that it’s not a school where you’re going to have 75 kids go out and you cut all but 20 of them; it’s just not that way here.”
Munn, meanwhile, is poised to take the reins of a Wildcats program that has tallied eight straight winning seasons between Stephenson and former coach Jerry English (2011-2016).
She recalled being impressed by the Wildcats program when her York team visited on March 27 — even though Gatorade Florida Player of the Year (and current University of Alabama freshman) Lexi Kilfoyl wasn’t pitching that day.
Munn’s team ended up winning that game 15-2. Her team lost the previous year to the Wildcats, 3-1.
She described the Wildcats program as “phenomenal” and “a powerhouse.”
“They were a great team all-around, so I’m really looking forward looking to developing and seeing these girls play together again,” Munn said, in a recent interview with The Laker/Lutz News.
Munn likewise was impressed by Academy at the Lakes upon flying down for an in-person on-campus visit, meeting with various faculty and students. Munn will be teaching health/physical education at the school.
“I felt like right at home, right away,” she said, “just because everyone makes you feel so welcome and that you’re a part of what they’re building there in that community.”
Munn, naturally, is eager to trade in blistery northern Illinois winters for Central Florida sunshine.
“Oh yeah, you have no idea,” Munn said with a laugh. “I’m excited to leave it in the past for sure. I see myself not moving back.”
Munn said her initial focus in her first year will be building camaraderie and goal-setting, noting she’s been given some beneficial pointers from Stephenson along the way.
“It’s not just one person, it’s the team,” Munn said. “You can have all the talents in the world, but unless everybody comes together to have that bond and team chemistry — that’s what really helps with building a team to win state championships.
“Just bringing everybody together so everybody understands each other and communicates with each other, I think those things are really essential,” she said.
That being said, Academy at the Lakes is headed for some rebuilding in 2020.
Besides the graduations of Kilfoyl and outfielder Tristen Gittens, the program also could be without other names on last year’s 15-player varsity roster.
Even so, Munn said she expects to be competitive, “being over .500, maybe more, depending on the talent we have coming in.”
Published August 28, 2019