By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
Two years after stepping down from her position as St. Francis (Pa.) softball coach, Sabrina Lane wasn’t looking to get back into the college coaching ranks.
And somehow, she finds herself doing exactly that in taking over the head coaching position at Division II Pitt-Johnstown.
“I got a phone call from the AD asking if I wanted to coach again,” Lane, a 1997 Conneaut graduate, said. “It took him two months to sell me on it. I wasn’t ready to get back into it. I wasn’t applying for jobs. I was thinking (I’d get back into it) in a few more years, when my girls (Kaija, 3, and Aria, 1) were older. It was off my radar. It wasn’t a thought even in the back of my head.
“I didn’t jump right at it. But (the AD) came down and talked with my husband and even got down and played princess dolls with my 3-year-old. That was part of the reason I left St. Francis. I wanted my lids involved and I didn’t feel like they were family-friendly. Softball is a 100-hour-a-week job. If you don’t involve your kids, you don’t see them.”
Lane led the St. Francis program from 2006-11, reaching the Northeast Conference Tournament in 2008 and being named NEC Coach of the Year that same season. She spent the last two years working with ERA — Earned Respect Athletics — running clinics, providing private lessons and working with players on speed and strength training.
Lane isn’t taking over a struggling program. She didn’t inherit a perennial winner. She will be building the Pitt-Johnstown up from nothing as the school has never had a softball program.
“It’s going to be from the ground up,” Lane said. “We don’t even have a softball right now, but we will have a team take the field to play in the spring. It’s going to be an interesting journey. It will be exciting though. I’ll go in guns blazing. I don’t want to do it just to do it. I want to be successful.”
One of the issues Lane will have to fight through is how to fill her roster, which currently boasts just one player — Amber Maurer, a Johnstown standout who was Lane’s first recruit at the school.
“We’ll have open tryouts,” she said. “We sent an email across campus asking who was interested. A number responded. We’ll have open tryouts in the fall. We’re hoping to get a few girls on campus who had played elsewhere and transferred here to be closer to home and for some reason want to play again.”
Lane has been recruiting big showcase tournaments over in Pennsylvania this summer combing for players. She would also consider recruiting Ohio, but in order to bring in an Ohioan, the player would have to be special.
“Obviously, out-of-state tuition is crazy,” she said. (To bring in an Ohio kid, she’d) need to be the whole package. She’d need to have a good academic background and good ACT or SAT scores.”
Lane and the Mountain Cats won’t have it easy. They will be members of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, which is known to be a good softball league. The PSAC includes Indiana University of Pennsylvania — where Lane’s husband, Bill Graham, is the coach and where Jefferson graduate Rachel Francis plays. Other members include Gannon, where Edgewood grad Meghan Cunha plays, Mercyhurst and Edinboro, where Pymatuning Valley grad Katie Holmes plays, among others.
“It’s a tough league,” Lane said. “One of the things that’s helpful is my husband is in the league and we can go recruit together, bring the girls and make it a family trip. It’s one of the toughest leagues in the country.”
The Mountain Cats will play a limited 24-game schedule in their first season, but will play a full slate thereafter.
“It will help to have another year to go after those 2014 recruits,” Lane said. “We’re looking for those kids who are getting academic money at Division III who may have been overlooked. Hopefully, we can find kids with athletic ability who we can coach up.”
Lane doesn’t exactly have a long-term contract, but that is not because the school is not committed to her or that she is not committed to the school.
“Like I said, I wouldn’t do it just to do it,” she said. “It’s a big commitment, making the way for the first team. When the AD sat down and talked with me, he said that he wanted me to help them get the program started and then we’d talk again next May.
“Recruiting is a future game. If you’re only doing this for a year, you be better off not doing it because it’s not worth it. Obviously, I’m looking long term. It’s a nice situation to be in. They trust me to come in and do what they asked me to come in and do.”
For the time being, Lane can’t be looking too far ahead. There is just too much to do between now and next spring.
“I can’t really think long term,” she said. “I have to think day-to-day, to the next tournament to scout. I have to buy equipment, have tryouts and pick a team. I’ll go day by day and go from there.”
Graham is supportive of his wife getting back into coaching.
“He thinks it’s good,” Lane said. “He thinks I deserve to coach He wants to see me coach again. I think he was happy that I was home with the girls as much as I have been, too.”
Lane’s mom, Katie, will be there as much as possible to help.
“She’ll be babysitting a lot more,” Lane joked. “But that three-hour drive gets a little old. She’s my biggest fan. She always has been. Her and my dad supported everything I did. Without them, I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Lane’s oldest daughter, Kaija, already has a good idea what happens during softball season and loves every bit of it. Going along with her mom won’t be too much of a hardship.
“Kaija loves to go with Daddy,” Lane said. “She loves to ride the bus. She even knows the bus driver’s name. She wants Matt to come pick her up with the bus and take her for ice cream. She loves him.
“She loves to be around the girls. It’s great for her to be around the girls and it’s great for the girls to be around her. It gives us the chance to teach them about more about life than softball.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.