About the last thing Jim O’Connor thought he’d be doing this softball season was running his own program.
But that’s what happened when former College of Mount Saint Vincent head coach Mark Roldan resigned the day before the season was set to open, and the school handed the keys to the program to O’Connor.
But Mount shook off its rocky start, and after a solid regular season, the Dolphins made a spirited run through the Skyline Conference tournament, coming up just one game short of the school’s first-ever trip to the championship game after a 3-0 loss to St. Joseph’s Long Island.
But it was a fine finish to a season that started with so many question marks.
“When (Roldan) left, it came as quite a shock to all of us,” said Mount senior star Rachel Heizer. “It definitely wasn’t something we were expecting, and we were all wondering, ‘What do we do now?’”
What the Dolphins did under O’Connor — and with a lot of help from Heizer — was post blowout victories over Baruch in their first games of the season before logging an 11-5 conference mark and making that unexpected long run in the postseason tournament.
Roldan leaving “kind of became a unifying thing for us overall,” Heizer said. “While we saw it as something negative at the time, it motivated us to really come together as a group and really focus and work toward a common goal because and we were under some very unique circumstances. I think it really ended up bringing us together as a group.”
Despite the circumstances in which he took over as head coach, O’Connor was thrilled to run his own team. Well, maybe not right away.
“It certainly was a whirlwind,” said O’Connor, who worked under Roldan as an assistant, and also is an occasional theater columnist for The Riverdale Press. “Mark had built up the program so he deserves the credit. But there was a lot of, not only added responsibilities, but so many details that I was never involved with before. But I had the support of the school and the team and the parents, which helped. But the learning curve was steep.”
One of the perks to O’Connor’s new gig was that he had a front row seat to watch Heizer all season. When asked if the senior pitcher/catcher/slugger was the finest to ever come through the Mount program in his time, his answer was quick.
“Undeniably and without question,” O’Connor said.
In her four years at Mount, Heizer was named rookie of the year following her freshman season, was twice tabbed as a Skyline Conference First-Team selection, and landed conference player of the year honors last season. She is a front-runner for that award again this season and was named to the conference’s First Team again after leading the Skyline in doubles (16) and RBIs (30), and finishing second in hits (40) while logging 11 wins as a pitcher with 91 strikeouts in 121 innings.
“Part of the reason why I came to Mount Saint Vincent was because I wanted to be part of an up-and-coming program, and I really wanted to leave my mark on a team,” Heizer said. “My definition of success is making an impact, and I think as a person and as a player, I’ve done that which I’m really proud of. I never expected the kind of decoration and awards that I’ve received, and I’m very thankful and very grateful for that.
“But for me, it was always about The Mount and just wanting to do everything I could for this program. I just wanted to leave it better than I found it.”
Heizer certainly did that. So just how great a player was Heizer? O’Connor tells a story of a conversation he had with an umpire during a game earlier this season.
“We were playing at Lehman College and Rachel pitched a no-hitter in the first game, and she was going to catch the next game,” O’Connor said. “But between games, the umpire asked me did I know what a good player I had? And I said, ‘Oh yes I do know.’ And he said, ‘Are you sure? Do you really know?’ And I said I did.’ And then he said, ‘I’ve umpired thousands of games, and she is one of the top five players I’ve ever seen.’
“She’s meant everything. She’s the heart and soul, our team leader.”
But Mount’s loss to St. Joseph’s Long Island last Saturday in the Skyline Conference semifinals means the end of Heizer’s storied collegiate career.
“I’m sad to see it go, but at the same time, I’m glad that I got all the time I did get to play and that I got to play in college and meet all the incredible girls on our team,” Heizer said. “I’m really proud of us, and I think that makes walking away from the game a little easier. But it was an amazing run.”