The Academy at the Lakes athletics department moved swiftly to hire a new varsity softball coach — one who happens to have decades of Division I collegiate coaching experience.
Diane Stephenson was named the new head varsity coach on July 27, just one week after legendary coach Jerry English announced his retirement.
Stephenson, who operates the Positive Force Fastpitch Academy in St. Petersburg, served as the head softball coach at Indiana University from 1987 to 2002. She was also an assistant softball coach at both the University of Iowa (2008-2010) and Purdue University (2010-2013). Most recently, Stephenson was the head softball coach at Division II Saint Joseph’s College (2014-2015) in Renssalaer, Indiana.
“She performed…at the highest level for many years, and her enthusiasm for coaching, and her passion for leading student-athletes to reach their full potential, is contagious,” Academy at the Lakes athletic director Tom Haslam said, in a release. “There’s no doubt that coach Stephenson will be the person who will take our softball program to another level.”
Starting this school year, Academy will compete in the 3A division of the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA). The school was awarded as the state’s top 2A private school athletic program in 2015.
Upon hearing about the coaching vacancy, Stephenson reached out to the school, and met with Haslam and the independent school’s headmaster Mark Heller.
The coaching veteran came away impressed by the pair’s enthusiasm, as well as the school’s academic and athletic achievements.
“The things that Tom and Mark have accomplished in their athletic department is incredible,” Stephenson said. “The idea of working with so many students that aspire to go on and be college educated is great.”
Over the past five seasons under coach English, the varsity softball program combined for a 64-25 record, winning four district championships and one regional title.
“I think the former coach…laid a lot of really great groundwork, so it’s really a matter of just continuing what he had going on there,” Stephenson said.
Academy finished 11-6 last season, and expects to return 10 underclassman players, including rising sophomore Alexis Kilfoyl, who’s already committed to play softball at the University of Alabama.
As a freshman in 2016, Kilfoyl proved to be one of the top hitters (.562 avg., three home runs and 20 RBIs) and pitchers (1.36 ERA, 163 strikeouts in 103 innings) in Tampa.
“It sounds like we have a pretty good nucleus of kids to play softball,” Stephenson said. “Hopefully we can get the kids who played last year to get one more person each to come and play this year; I wouldn’t mind having a roster of 15 or 18 players.”
While having a bevy of skilled players is important, Stephenson said one of the main keys to the program’s success is ensuring the roster is chock full of teammates that are respectable and helpful to one another.
“The most valuable thing for all the girls that play softball is to learn to be a good teammate,” she said. “Teammates are really hard to find — be a good teammate and work on being the best you can be; work on having a great self-esteem and a positive influence on everyone around you.”
Moreover, Stephenson said she’ll use positive reinforcement to instill the game’s fundamentals to her players.
“I’m going to just do what I’ve always done: be a good teacher and work on fundamental skills,” she said. “There’s no secrets to softball — you just have to be the best thrower, be the best catcher and be the best fielder. I think the most important thing at every level is having a solid skillset and being able to count on it, so that it’s routine, and you’re relaxed when you play in a game.”
In addition to her softball coaching acumen, Stephenson comes to her new role equipped with hundreds of college recruiting contacts. Her Rolodex contains the names of about 80 percent of Division I head softball coaches, which may help more softball players receive college looks.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity for the kids not only in my program, but the other kids that I see playing, because I’m in constant contact with my former peers and colleagues,” Stephenson explained. “It’s one of the things that we do, we reach out and say, ‘Hey, I got a kid that might be worth looking at.’ It just comes with some kind of credibility since I’ve been at that level for 30 years.”
Stephenson still plans to operate the Fastpitch Academy in St. Petersburg, within the guidelines of the Florida High School Athletic Association.
Published August 3, 2016