New Maryland head softball coach Courtney Scott Deifel faces some interesting challenges. Scott is the third head coach hired in one of the sports Testudo Times classifies as "Other Maryland Athletics" since Kevin Anderson began his tenure as Maryland's Athletic Director - the others being baseball coach John Szefc and volleyball coach Steve Aird.
Szefc inherited a rising program that reached the 30-win plateau for only the third time in Maryland history and, in his second season, led his squad to a record 40 wins and the deepest NCAA run in program history.
When Aird came on board, the volleyball program had suffered through four losing seasons in the previous six and faced the added challenge of moving into one of the two best volleyball conferences in the NCAA. While he didn't achieve immediate success in terms of the team's wins and losses in his first season, he generated enough excitement to propel the Terps into the top 25 in attendance nationally and he and his staff have made some stunning strides in recruiting.
Like Aird in volleyball, Scott Diefel was hired late in the year for a softball coach following the June departure of Laura Watten. After three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, the team's record started heading south and 2014 was the worst season in program history. Although the change to the Big Ten isn't the quantum leap in competition faced by volleyball (the SEC is the major power in softball), it's still a step up from the ACC. So, like Aird, Scott Deifel inherited a team headed in a downward direction that will face stiffer competition. And, like Aird, because her hiring happened so late in the year, her first full recruiting class will not take the field until the 2016-2017 season. And through it all, she managed to squeeze in her wedding.
Transitioning to Maryland
TC: We'll start with a hard question: Is the correct pronunciation "dee-fle" or "die-fle"?
CSD: Deifel. It rhymes with rifle.
TC: You left your first stint at Maryland just before Kevin Anderson came on as AD. What kind of differences, if any, are you seeing between Kevin and his predecessor?
CSD: Mainly it's a difference in leadership styles. What's great about working for Kevin is his vision for the athletic department. Everything he does, every decision is student-athlete based so it's very easy to buy into and want to work for.
TC: Beyond the opportunity to be a head coach, what drew you back to Maryland?
CSD: I loved my time at Maryland. I think it's a great university. I think it's a region that's easy to recruit to. The academic excellence, what they're doing in the athletic department, and Kevin's vision in really moving the athletic department forward makes it something you want to be a part of. The move to the Big Ten is huge, not only for the whole athletic department, but for softball specifically is doing great things for us.
Moving to the Big Ten
TC: Let's talk about that. Before you got here, how familiar were you with the Big Ten as a softball league?
CSD: Pretty familiar. I have some really good friends who are coaches in the Big Ten. I can tell you this: One, it's a really competitive conference. Two, they do things the right way and that's the thing I think is most refreshing and most infectious. Within the Big Ten, they play the game the right way. They're going to win the right way. It's going to be super competitive on the field, but off the field everyone's number one priority is moving the sport forward and moving the conference forward. So, it's not just every man for themselves. We're going to do what's best for the sport and what's best for the conference.
TC: Is that different from your previous experiences?
CSD: Well, there are conferences where the attitude is a little more hardcore and a little more cutthroat. And I'm not referring to what happens on the field. Everybody everywhere wants to beat each other's brains out on the field and that will be the same in the Big Ten. It's just refreshing that here you get the feeling from the conference as a whole that their top priorities are softball, the student-athletes, and our conference.
TC: Let's talk a bit more about the Big Ten from a competitive standpoint. They had five teams make the NCAAT and Michigan is perennial power. I think they've made every NCAA Tournament.
CSD: Typically the top five are Michigan, Minnesota which got a seed last year, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin. They are a strong top five. I think what we'll see in the Big Ten in the next few years is more strength throughout the conference. In the last few years there's been more of an imbalance. But I think you're going to see the conference move forward. Any time you can get five teams represented out of your conference I think that's huge. But I also think we'll have more in the near future. I'm excited about that. I think the conference is on the rise.
Hiring a staff
TC: Like our volleyball coach, you got something of a late start. So let's talk about how that has affected you in putting together your staff?
CSD: Putting together the staff for me was a no-brainer. The two people I hired were two who had been on my list for a long time. If I ever wanted to take this step, these are two I would talk to right away. And the stars aligned. They were both in a place where they were ready to make a move and it worked out perfectly. I'm really, really excited to have Tommy [Santiago] and Yo [Yolanda McRae] on staff here.
TC: You worked with Yolanda on your first go-round at Maryland. Was having her on your list a personality fit or a vision fit that made you want to work with her?
CSD: All of the above. She is, above all, a great person. Whenever you have great people on staff I feel like you can't go wrong because you're all working together. She has a great softball mind. She's a tireless worker. She's a great recruiter because she has an infectious personality. You're in a good mood any time you're around her. I can't say enough good things about her. I knew from the first time we worked here that we work very well together. We can be honest and we make each other better.
TC: Had you worked with Tommy, also?
CSD: I'd never worked with Tommy before. But I got to know him because when I was at Maryland, he was at Florida State and then he was at St. John's when I was at Louisville. So we've been in the same conference for four or five years. I've gotten to know him a lot in the recruiting world. I think he brings a great balance. He's also a great person and a wonderful recruiter. He has a way of communicating and relating to the girls so they get it and want to work hard for him. He's a great defensive mind.
While the three coaches will work as a team, each will have a specific area of focus and expertise seemed to play a role in Deifel's decision making process. The head coach will work with the pitchers and catchers, while McCrae will focus on the Terrapins' hitters and Santiago will serve as the defensive guru. It also seemed that Deifel was seeking a blend of personalities.
CSD: We all are very different personalities but I think it's nice because that means there's a little something for everybody. And I mean for the players. You're always going to have someone you can relate to a little bit more. So you have Yo, who's always full of energy. Tommy's just chill. He can get fired up, but most of the time he's pretty low key. I'm somewhere in the middle so it's a good balance.
In part two, the coach and I focus on the current squad and look ahead to 2016 and beyond. Stay tuned.