Senior Foursome Inspiring Teammates to Realize Their Potential
April 25, 2014
CHICAGO – The genesis of DePaul’s return to softball excellence has its origin in a solemn players’ meeting at the conclusion of last season.
It was quite a downer when the Blue Demons failed to earn an NCAA tournament berth for only the second time in the last 17 years.
That mission is going well. Heading into a three-game, BIG EAST Conference series with Villanova that begins on Saturday, DePaul is 33-8 overall, 13-0 in the BIG EAST and riding a 15-game winning streak.
Coach Eugene Lenti’s ball club has clinched the conference regular-season title and No. 1 seed in the May 9-10 BIG EAST tournament hosted by the Blue Demons at the Ballpark at Rosemont.
Verdun, Braden, Coronado and Penna will be honored in a special postgame Senior Day ceremony on Sunday at Cacciatore Stadium.
“Everyone at that meeting last year was disappointed the way our season ended, and we did not want that to ever happen again,” said Verdun, who is 23-5 in the pitching circle and leads the BIG EAST in wins, starts, saves, innings pitched and appearances, is second in earned-run average and third in strikeouts.
“It was time for us to start over and go back to playing DePaul ball. The four of us did not want to end our careers like that.”
Braden nodded her head in total agreement.
“None of us were very happy about last year,” said Braden, fresh off a 13-game hitting streak. “We knew there were new assistant coaches coming in. We had to understand where they were coming from and learn to work together with them.”
Coronado was frustrated that she could not help out the team at the end.
“The way we finished our season left a bad taste in your mouth,” Coronado said. “I came back from my injury and could only sit on the bench and watch how it ended. That was really uncomfortable.”
The four rising seniors knew any return to glory had to start with them. When it came to role models for leadership, they remembered the impact Alex Morocco, Brittney Yniguez, Lindsey Dean, Sean Plese and Sarah Shizas had on them in 2011.
Verdun & Co. were freshmen contributors to a Blue Demon program that was 41-15 in 2011 and among the final 20 teams competing in the NCAA tournament. That team had a 16-game winning streak and finished the season No. 24 in the final USA Today/NFCA national poll.
“When we were freshmen, the senior leadership was amazing,” Verdun said. “Alex Morocco would battle you so hard the entire game. Sarah Shizas quietly went from a back-up player to starting catcher.
“I can still hear Brittney Yniguez yelling at us. She cared so much and competed so hard, it was inspiring. Lindsey Dean had the best year of her career as a senior and Sean Plese always seemed to come through at the right moment.”
Coronado added: “All those seniors inspired us in such a positive way. Alex was unbelievable in center field. She made just two errors in 56 games. I remember her being so focused. She didn’t talk a lot, but when she said something, everyone listened.”
“Each of the seniors had a different role when it came to leadership, and they knew what it took to motivate us,” Verdun said. “We are trying to follow the example they set.”
Throughout their careers in Lincoln Park, each of the 2014 seniors has had their shining moments.
“Penna Power” translated into game-winning, pinch-hit home runs by Hannah Penna against nationally ranked Notre Dame in 2013 and 2014. Appropriately enough, the game-winning blast last year came on Senior Day.
“I enjoy the role of coming to bat in big situations,” Penna said. “My mindset is that I have nothing to lose. I go up there with nothing in my head to mess up my mind. Eug (Lenti) says it’s best to clear your mind.
“In that Notre Dame game three weeks ago, I figured I’d get a high pitch. It wasn’t high. The first pitch was lower than I expected, but I still swung. I like to go after pitchers early in the count and just react to what’s coming.
“That home run last year on Senior Day, I remember we had played poorly in both games the day before. I wanted to make sure Sam (Samantha Dodd), Ali (Warren) and Bree (Brown) had a good sendoff for their final home game. I just reacted to the pitch.”
As a junior, Penna went 4-for-4 with six RBIs and was the winning pitcher in an 18-5 triumph over Seton Hall. In one of her best pitching performances, Penna limited No. 1 California to one run and five hits as a sophomore. That same season she was named to the BIG EAST Honor Roll after her two wins led DePaul to the NFCA Leadoff Classic title. A year later, she had a career-high 12 strikeouts in a shutout of Pittsburgh.
Braden led the Blue Demons in doubles, triples and runs and was second in hits as a junior. The steady shortstop culminated that season with a triple and a single while scoring the winning run in a 1-0 BIG EAST tournament victory over Georgetown.
She made an immediate impact on the program as a freshman and was named All-BIG EAST Third Team in 2011. As a sophomore she scored a crucial run in an NCAA tournament victory over Massachusetts.
Coronado was All-BIG EAST Second Team as a freshman before sustaining a season-ending knee injury as a sophomore in her 15th game. She had 13 multi-hit games as a junior and was flawless in her first 21 games in center field. She re-injured her knee towards the end of that season.
Verdun was an NFCA Second-Team All-American in 2012 and was NFCA Great Lakes All-Region First Team three years in a row. She is a three-time selection as All-BIG EAST First Team and was the BIG EAST Rookie of the Year in 2011.
With seven regular-season games left, Verdun is DePaul’s all-time leader in strikeouts looking and career starts, and is second in innings pitched, strikeouts, batters faced and most at-bats against. She is third in career shutouts, complete games and appearances and fourth all-time in wins, saves and strikeouts per seven innings.
Offensively, Verdun is the all-time leader in career walks and second in career home runs and on-base percentage.
Within a 24-hour span in early April, Verdun pitched DePaul to a 4-2 win over No. 25/23 Notre Dame. The next day, she recorded the first no-hitter of her collegiate career.
What these four seniors have engendered is a culture of trust and accountability. Teammates know that someone always has their back. Verdun can pitch to contact knowing her defense will make the plays behind her. The collective always comes before the individual.
“We swept Creighton on the road and I didn’t get a hit all weekend,” Verdun said. “That was awesome for the team.
With that kind of a mindset, it’s hard to keep this team down.
“There hasn’t been a single time this season when I felt we were out of a game,” Verdun said.
It wasn’t quite the same for Braden.
“There was one time when we were down 6-0 to the College of Charleston and I thought we were out of it,” Braden said. “Morgan Maize hit a grand slam and we came back to win 9-8. Ever since then, there’s no doubt in my mind we can come back against anyone.”
“We truly believe that,” she said. “When we succeed, we hold up our three-fingers sign. They stand for a BIG EAST regular-season title, a BIG EAST tournament title and an NCAA title. After every home run, you’ll see us doing our sign. It’s a new softball tradition we started this year.”
The storied tradition of DePaul softball begins and ends with Lenti, who has more than 1,200 victories in a Hall of Fame 33-year career.
But Lenti’s true impact can be seen in the lives he has altered with his seemingly endless supply of life’s teaching moments.
Penna won’t soon forget the Hawaii trip two years ago.
“We stayed at a hotel a block or two from the beach and the weather was sunny and in the 80s,” Penna said. “It was perfect. In between games, we had free time to go to the beach, go shopping and walking around. That was the tournament where Allie Braden hit her first home run.
“The morning we got ready to come home, it was 5 a.m. and the team left early and left me behind. I had to call Eug to come back and get me with my four large bags of Hawaiian cookies. He wasn’t very happy.
“What I learned from Eug and DePaul softball is how to handle my emotions. I’ve definitely become a stronger person. I learned about keeping my composure on and off the mound.”
Lenti has told his players for more than three decades that their priorities in life should be God, family, school and softball in that order.
The Blue Demon softball environment made Coronado feel like she spent the season hanging out with 17 sisters. Braden said Lenti was like her dad.
“Eug is so open-minded in everything, especially life,” Coronado said. “I am so much more well-rounded and open to new things. When I came here from Texas as a freshman, I thought I had all the answers. I had no idea, and Eug opened up my mind to so many possibilities.”
Verdun flourished as an athlete and a person under Lenti.
“Eug lets you have that college experience,” Verdun said. “He encourages you to be friends with non-athletes, to be a good student and to have fun in your social life with one of the most awesome cities in the world in your backyard.
“I want to go into coaching, and you couldn’t ask for a better role model than Eug. Even though he has seen and done so many things in 33 years, he is still trying to learn something new every day.”