Lehman softball rising like a phoenix, thanks to new coach

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Lehman softball was headed for yet another forgettable campaign. 

A year removed from a season in which the Lightning had just nine players on their roster, this campaign looked to be a repeat of last year — or even worse.

The Lightning kicked off their 2017 season with eight straight losses, which were followed by 10 consecutive postponements due to weather. During that bad weather stretch, former coach Don Gannon resigned, adding yet more adversity to Lehman’s season.

A last place finish in the City University of New York Athletic Conference seemed all but assured. The only question seemed to be just how many games Lehman would lose this year?

But a funny thing happened on the way to that basement. New coach Erin Van Nostrand, the school’s assistant athletic director and a former Division III national softball coach of the year, took over the program and proceeded to build it in her image. After a few weeks, the losses began to slow, the wins started coming with more regularity. And last week the Lightning, riding a six-game winning streak, actually clinched a postseason berth in the CUNYAC Tournament.

A far as resurrections go, this one was right up there with Lazarus.

“We actually got a more experienced coach, now and I think that made all the difference,” junior pitcher Yaidee Nieves said. “Our mechanics were a little rusty when she came in, and she fixed it up for us.”

That may be oversimplifying it a tad because when Van Nostand took the reins, she had to give the Lightning a rather extreme makeover. Think of it as a softball bootcamp.

“I think I tried to do what I’ve always done, and then I realized I needed to stop and go back to basics. And I mean back to basics,” said Van Nostrand, who led Pacific Lutheran University of Washington to the Division III national championship in 2012. “Literally there was one day when all I did was teach them about sliding. When to slide, where to slide, how to slide, slide and get back up, slide and find the ball. Basic stuff. 

“We’re fast and we are athletic so we rely on putting the ball in play and using our athleticism and be aggressive.”

There also were countless batting and fielding drills designed to improve the team. But the most important thing that changed for the Lightning was between their ears — Van Nostrand gave the players an attitude adjustment.

“They had a losing mindset and a defeated mindset,” she said. “So I had to try and change that. This is a game of failure, so it’s not the end of the world if you fail.” 

Van Nostrand said it was a recent doubleheader sweep of Baruch when she saw the light go on.

“For me, the biggest thing was we beat Baruch twice, but we came back from behind in both games,” Van Nostrand said. “That was almost more important than the wins. We didn’t fold our tents and throw a pity party and go home. We battled.”

The Lightning concluded the CUNYAC season with that six-game winning streak, something that would have seemed unfathomable just a few weeks earlier. But it didn’t come as a shock to the new coach.

“I can’t say I’m surprised that we’re more competitive because there is more talent here than I think they even know,” Van Nostrand said. “They just need to believe in that and believe in what we’re teaching, and just go out and play the game. 

“I figured we could probably make the playoffs. But did I think we had the potential to finish in third place? No. But they are a good group of kids and they bought into what we’re doing.”

Lehman now is focused on May 3 — a game which takes place after The Press publishes — when the Lightning hosts either Brooklyn or Baruch at 4 p.m., in a first-round CUNYAC playoff game no one saw coming. 

The early-season losing streak, the endless postponements, the coach’s resignation — it all seems like such a long time ago now.

“I’m very excited,” said Nieves, who likely will be Lehman’s starting pitcher in the playoff game. “Basically going from last place to third place is very exciting, especially for us, because a lot of teams would look at us and be like, ‘Ah Lehman, they’re not that good, they’re not going to make it.’ 

“But here we are.”

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