July 2, 2014
Former Michigan softball standout Patti Benedict Townsend ('93) was a two-time All-American (1992-93) and a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year (1992-93). She played for Team USA in 1995 and 1997, and for the past 11 years, she has led the softball team at Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College.
A native of Allendale, Mich., Townsend started her coaching career at Florida State, where she was an assistant under JoAnn Graf from 1995-96. She joined TCC as an assistant in 1996 and took over as head coach in 2002.
This season, Townsend coached the Eagles to the NJCAA National Championship tournament -- the equivalent of the NCAA Women's College World Series -- and finished with a final record of 41-14. What made the achievement even more special was how last year came to a crashing halt. Townsend suspended several players toward the end of the 2013 season and the team did not have enough players to compete in the state tournament (equivalent to the NCAA's Super Regional).
Townsend, who lives in the Tallahassee area with her husband Jimmy and daughter Ali, talks about her softball coaching career and life lessons she absorbed from playing for Carol Hutchins at U-M for four seasons.
Q. Did last season's disappointment fuel this season's achievements?
A. We had some good conversations with the individuals who screwed up, and unfortunately it was all of them at the same time. We worked it out and I decided to give them a second shot. They all returned. I had nine sophomores this year (junior college players only have freshman and sophomore eligibility), they figured out their off-the-field stuff, they made adjustments and matured tremendously. They had always been gifted athletes, I knew that. But it was the chemistry piece that we had to figure out.
They came in ready to work this fall, and we talked about goals. They worked hard and it came together. It wasn't always a bed of roses, we still had to keep them in check a little bit. But throughout conference play we just kept winning.
So we went to the state tournament, and we have everything going: hitting, pitching and defense. But we lose the first game (in a double-elimination format). We had to make it the hard way. We won seven games in a row, at one point playing six games in about 25 hours. They didn't shy away -- they just kept fighting and fighting.
It's a double-elimination tournament, so we had to beat Polk State twice. We hadn't seen them all year, but we knew they were going to be tough (TCC beat Polk State twice to advance to nationals). We went to nationals, and that didn't go as planned, we went two games and out.
The biggest thing is that the kids bought into what I was saying. I meant what I said. Obviously I got a lot of how I coached from Hutch -- be on time, tuck your shirt in, work hard, be respectful. We just continued to do that all year. This is about life; softball will be over someday. They know that if they work hard in the classroom and on the field, good things will happen.
Q. What do you like the most about your job?
A. I like knowing that I'm going to change someone's life. For a lot of these kids, if junior college wasn't here, they'd be done playing ball. It's a second chance to make someone a better person or a better player. Some players need an attitude change, and I can be that turning point. I'm firm but fair. Much of the time, people have sugarcoated things for these players because they were the best player wherever they came from. I get to do some tough love.
I get emails, phone calls or text years later from kids and they say they get it now. Life is about choices, and it's how you're going to be successful.
They are starting to take some of what I've taught them and it helps them in the real world. A lot of that comes from Hutch, and I know she sees the same things. I was one of those kids -- I wasn't the easiest player to coach, I was pretty bullheaded. A lot of my style on coaching comes from her. And that reaches other programs through my former players. That's a huge rewarding piece.
Q. Do you hear Carol Hutchins' words come out of your mouth?
A. It happens all the time, especially when I started to coach and I had that 'aha' moment. I can't pinpoint exact phrases, but it's the philosophy. Take being on time: I never thought it was that big of a deal, but it is a big deal if you've got to get to a job interview, or if you have to punch a clock. It's a huge deal.
Q. Growing up, could you have envisioned the explosion of softball?
A. I never would've thought softball would get so popular and so big. The recruiting is so much different. It's really cool to see that these athletes are getting the things that they deserve. And the recognition, to be on TV now. I was part of that transition period where you started to see it more. And the Olympics, that was right after I finished school, and that was so big for the sport. You talk about softball, and it's fast and quick, there's a lot of action with these great athletes. It's cool to see kids are really embracing it and working hard.
There are so many good players now and so many good teams.
Q. What do you remember about playing softball at Michigan?
A. Pride (comes to mind first). What a great experience it was. I wish I could go back and do it all again. I'd probably not fight with Hutch so much (if I could do it again). And now, they get cool gear. I mean, back in my day, we didn't even have dugouts with tops on them.
I'd love to savor it even more. It was just a different time period. For me going through school, it was an opportunity to get my school paid for because my family couldn't afford it. The whole experience, I wouldn't trade it for the world.
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