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Thankful for every opportunity, DII grad revives softball at West Point

By Josh Looney

Fresh off four consecutive 30-win seasons and an NCAA Tournament berth in 2013, Army softball coach Michelle DePolo has led the Black Knights to heights most in the collegiate softball world thought impossible.

Prior to DePolo’s appointment as head coach in 2010, Army had endured four straight seasons of 30 or more losses and hadn’t captured a Patriot League regular-season title in 18 years. The program had posted just one 30-win season since 1988.

“We were at the bottom of softball teams in the country, so we really had nothing to lose,” DePolo recalled of her first season as head coach, one in which Army set a then-school record with 33 wins. “Pretty much everyone expected us to be a rollover. So we just got down to the why. Why did we have to be like that anymore?

“We had to learn how to win games and develop an attitude that we wouldn’t let losing become a habit. The message tied back to many of the things that have led me throughout my life, in really putting in the preparation for success and then letting things go.”

DePolo was never supposed to be standing on a softball field, at least not by doctor’s orders.

Born with a heart condition, DePolo underwent open-heart surgery less than a month after being born in an effort to save her life. She’d later require a second surgery. Chances of survival were around 50 percent, and a life in athletics was certainly not in the cards. But DePolo had a pair of athletic older brothers that ran counter to medical advice.

“My parents were very vigilant in taking care of me, but I grew up in a house with two older brothers, so not being active wasn’t an option,” DePolo said. “As it turned out, getting me around sports saved my life. I ended up doing a lot better than many of the kids who laid back, and I think that’s what provided my passion for sports. I was just thankful for every day that I could be on the field, because I wasn’t supposed to be there.”

The field turned into the pool, and onto the court and about any other playing surface her brothers decided to compete. DePolo would go on to become a three-sport athlete at Division II Georgian Court University, but not until her medical condition denied her an opportunity to play softball for Army.

The daughter of a Naval commander and a prep softball standout, DePolo was determined to play for her father’s rival. And she was more than qualified to become a cadet. Qualified in every way except medically.

“I was told there was no way I was going to get into West Point because I had undergone the two heart surgeries, which is a major disqualifier for admittance,” Depolo recalled. “The idea of playing for the Army, being a part of the military and compulsory service really appealed to me. There was some major soul searching going on for me at that time. I really had to have some hard talks with myself on a level of maturity.”

DePolo initially refused to return calls from the softball coach at nearby Georgian Court University – which was, at the time, an all-women’s college in New Jersey. But the Naval commander refused to let his daughter throw herself a pity party. Not after what she’d already worked so hard to overcome.

“It was begrudging at first to even go on the visit,” DePolo remembered of her first trip to GCU. “I had no intention of going to a women’s college and, to be honest, I didn’t even know those schools still existed. But I did know that GCU had a good softball program.

“I really just had to have some hard sit-downs with myself and my parents to talk about what opportunities were going to serve best for my future? What school would make me the most well-rounded individual? I knew in my heart that Georgian Court was going to help me accomplish those goals and get me prepared for the rest of my life.”

DePolo dominated softball competition as a pitcher for the Lions, but soon found herself starring for the soccer and basketball teams as well. A rare three-sport scholarship athlete, DePolo also excelled in the classroom as a member of the Dean’s List every semester of her collegiate career and graduated magna cum lade with a degree in English. She was also a Presidential Scholar and a National Dean's List recipient.

In the circle, she was unhittable, leading the Lions to four CACC titles (2000-03) and, in 2001, compiled a 0.50 ERA while allowing just one baserunner per inning to go along with a 4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio. She was inducted into the Georgian Court Athletics Hall of Fame last year.

“At Division II, the sky was the limit in what you wanted to do,” DePolo said. “Someone told me before I went to college that there were three things you could do in college, and that you had to make a choice between doing two of the three. You could be a scholar. You could be an athlete. Or you could be a social butterfly.

“I knew that I had four years left to play competitive athletics, and I was certainly there to get my education and prepare myself for life after college. As it turned out, the social aspect ended up coming along with within my teams, so I was able to find a tremendous college balance at Georgian Court. I really enjoyed it. I don’t think I would have done as well in school without sports, and vice versa.”

As DePolo excelled in school and sports, a career in coaching wasn’t the end-goal of her academic efforts. The English major was initially working toward becoming a high school teacher.

“I really think the coaching profession found me more than I found it,” DePolo said. “My commitment was that I wanted my students to have an A-quality teacher, but I eventually realized that the reason I wanted to teach was so I could coach.

“In college I was doing things to coach myself in every sport. I would send videos of my hitting to my brothers and I would send letters to some of the top-25 softball programs to see what kind of things they were doing to make themselves better. I eventually realized that I had just as many coaching books on my shelves as I did English books, so maybe coaching might be something I was interested in.”

One of those books, which was a gift from her high school softball coach, remains in DePolo’s current office at West Point. The book is a basic primer on how to coach softball. Her high school coach once read the book when he was asked to make a transition from coaching baseball to softball.

The book is more symbolic than anything. DePolo knows softball. It’s the collection of life experiences that gives her an edge in the coaching profession.

“I would condition for basketball in the morning, go have softball practice in the afternoon and then block off study increments,” DePolo said of her experience at GCU. “At West Point, lives are very structured and balanced, and there’s the idea that each person must play a sport here as part of being an athlete. I was framing my life the same way, and balance was what made me successful. My college experience helped me become the most well-rounded person I could possibly be.”

Rapidly climbing the softball coaching ranks as a graduate assistant at Georgian Court (2004-05) and as an assistant coach at Division III Smith College (2005-06) and Amherst College (2006-07), an unexpected opportunity emerged to join Army’s softball staff as an assistant prior to the 2008 season.

Life had come full circle for DePolo, who had been denied an opportunity to join Army’s softball program less than a decade prior. She named Army’s head coach two years later.

“Life just works in funny ways,” DePolo said. “If you had asked me four years ago if I would be the head coach at Army, I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I’d have that opportunity; and then the success we’ve had, which many thought would have never been be a possibility. It all just keeps me very humble, not looking too far ahead and knowing that the way kind of leads the way.”

Then there’s Rudolph DePolo, the retired Naval commander who rarely misses an Army home softball game. The father who helped drive his daughter to attend Georgian Court is there to keep his daughter focused, humble and driven in her next stage of life.

“His first official day of retirement was my first official day as head coach at Army, so it was a bit poetic,” DePolo says, smiling. “He’s kind of become a coach’s critique in his retirement profession.

“At a young age he really engaged me in the idea of compulsory service and giving back to your country, and really looking beyond yourself with the idea of earning things through hard work. He’s been my biggest influence in what the military stands for. You start at the bottom and you earn your way to the top through experience and hard work.”

Under DePolo, Army softball has reached the top in the minds of many. In four years at the helm DePolo has amassed more than 100 career victories and broken the school record for wins in a season twice with 33 wins in 2010 and 37 wins in 2012. Last year, Army made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in over a decade.

There’s no place DePolo would rather be. And the retired Naval commander is there to remind her of the journey that took her there.

“To me, West Point is what college athletics is supposed to stand for,” DePolo said. “It is very similar to what I had at Georgian Court. It’s not just athletics and it’s not just academics. It’s a balance of everything. This environment has just paralleled with a lot of my beliefs and with the things that are important to me.”