Sports coach focus

Jen Williams discusses MIT softball’s road to success

MIT softball had its most successful season in program history last season in which they finished fifth in the Division III College World Series (WS). Along the way, it won its first NCAA Regional, first NCAA Super Regional, and for the first time earned a spot in the WS.

As softball prepares for its 2017 campaign, The Tech features in this inaugural edition of the ‘Coach Focus’ series the person who was at the helm of the team through its incredible run, head coach Jen Williams.

In this first part of the interview, coach Williams talks about the team’s magnificent run — from a rough start in spring, to overcoming personal adversities, to reaching the pinnacle of success.

The Tech: Let us start at the obvious place — a trip to the College World Series — what was that like for you?

Williams: Well it was an incredible experience. It was a program-changing experience. The team experienced a level of competition and played at a level that we knew we were capable of. But it is the kind of thing where until you really get there, you don’t know whether you can stand up for it, and they did. They discovered through the entire playoff run — through the entire month of May — that they had the athletic ability and the drive to get to that arena. When we got there, they had a good showing, and they showed that they belonged there. We had a lot of people in the softball world and also elsewhere that did not think that MIT could necessarily carry their weight on that stage. We did that and is something the team ought to be very proud of.

The Tech: You defeated the defending champions, Tufts, during the regular season. Then you beat WPI in the Super Regional who were 4–1 against you that year. There were some tough matches to overcome. How was the team able to pull through?

Williams: Beating Tufts was a good experience because we had such a good battle against them in the regional final in the 2015 season at Tufts — taking them to extra innings and we were almost the only team to defeat them that year. It was great to have that sense of accomplishment — playing ball with them and be able to beat them. I would not say it was the first step so much as part of the process. We are a very process focused team and last year was no different.

With WPI in the super regionals it was like the 6th or 7th time we were playing them. [It was like] we finally got this figured out, and this was our time to get this done. We have not been able to do what we were capable of, but this time there was no doubt. I had never seen our team so determined than at any other point. We were just 100% certain that we were going to walk away with those games with victories and they were not going to let anybody stand in their way. It was everything from how they behaved in the bus to how they warmed up to how they came out onto the field to how they played during the game. They dominated the energy of the super regional from start to finish. It was thrilling. It was just an awesome two days of softball.

The Tech: Does playing a team multiple times give you and your coaching staff an advantage?

Williams: Yes, I think so, but the trouble is, it does for the other team as well. The more you get to know the other team’s pitcher, the more you get to know the other team’s batters you realize how you can defend against them very specifically. Before Super Regional we had a week where we had practices geared towards specific individuals in their lineup. We were able to organize our practices for battling against a specific starting lineup and specific pitchers.

That is also unique about playoffs that you have a week to prepare for one particular team.

We had so much knowledge at that point. Our coach, who calls pitches, had 12 pitch charts taped up on the side of the dugouts that she would look up to see what each batter had done each time one stepped up. We had to be creative and dynamic with the way we played and focused on the moment. That was one of the other good things about WPI [in the] Super Regional. They weren’t thinking about the WS. They just wanted to beat WPI. We beat them and suddenly we realized we were going to the world series. That was incredibly thrilling.

The Tech: When did you know that team was destined for success? Can you predict such things?

Williams: It is very hard to know. I knew we had the talent for it. I knew we had the personnel. It was a matter of whether we were going to have the determination and the leadership to do it. We had a bit of a rough year. We had several very serious illnesses to parents of players on the team. That impacted the team in a huge number of ways. That sort of really forced us to decide what the season is going to be about. I talk about focusing on the process.

We have to be focused on the now because focusing on anything beyond this is unproductive, it’s a distraction.  

In spring training in Florida, we faced some good competition and we didn’t quite stack up against them. When we got back from spring training and played Williams — that double header was probably one of the first times the team really showed what they were capable of and also sort of started to understand themselves as a team. They knew in theory. But that double header — very close games — to pull those games out, that was the first time the coaches really saw what this team is really made of.

The Tech: Alexandra Marshall ’16 was a huge part of the team’s success. She had a career year finishing with a 1.02 ERA over 240 innings pitched with 271 strikeouts and a remarkable four home runs allowed. She graduated as the all-time leader in career wins (32), complete games (41), and most innings pitched (327.1). As a pitcher yourself from your playing days what was it like to coach Marshall?

Williams: Lexi is a special athlete. She decided to put the team on her back and took us to the world series. There were definitely other elements and a lot of other people who worked extremely hard, and the whole team together got us there but Lexi was kind of the driving force. She had sheer determination during her senior year. She wasn't always like that. Her freshman year and beyond, she was a very talented athlete who was committed to softball, but at times I had to convince her what she was capable of. She would have doubts as to whether she was the best person for the job and we would have some push-pull about that. My objective in her senior year was to show her what she was capable of and make her realize it in time for playoffs. I knew if we were to have the year that we wanted to have her senior year I had to show Lexi what she could do. If she was able to see that we would have a great year.

She is also just a phenomenal human being. She has such a passion for the game and such a strong sense of what our team culture was about and an understanding of how to be supported by and be a supporter of the system. She was a quiet cornerstone of how we did things and the legacy she left us will resonate for years.

The Tech: Along with Alexandra Marshall, Tori Jensen ’16 also graduated. She is the program leader in hits, doubles, and homeruns. How hard is it going to be this coming season without them?

Williams: Losing every class is difficult especially when you have such a tight-knit culture and it really impacts the team. But, they can rebuild off of it and next year form their own structure. With that particular class, we obviously lost a very good pitcher. Tori was a big part of our game offensively and then Stephanie Riocci ’16 was a big part of the team culture and really got us fired up for every single game. That particular senior class had important roles in their own ways, so I felt like losing them is definitely a challenge, but part of my job in the recruiting process is to make sure that I am not just bring in skill-sets that we lost but also personalities that we have lost. With this year’s freshman class, we are in a great position with respect to the culture and in terms of getting back to where we were. It is going to take work and investment in our team but we have a terrific group of student athletes for this year.

The Tech: What are our expectations for softball 2017? Do you think there is more pressure this season given what you achieved last season?

Williams: By the team or by other people? Within the team I don’t think there is the pressure or expectation because we are focused on process. Going back to the World Series is a results-driven statement. We are focused on doing things right, seeing our mission through as a team and controlling what we can control day-to-day.

Would they like to get back there? Sure. But they understand that we need to be focused on our process first and do things right and then if that leads us to the WS, great. If it doesn’t, we know we have done everything that is part of our process, and we know we have fulfilled our mission to the best of our abilities for the season.

From other people? It doesn’t matter to us. They are not on our team; they don’t form our team culture.

The Tech: Did you feel a lack of appreciation for what you were able to achieve?

Jen Williams: It is difficult when a spring team accomplishes something at that level because everyone leaves for the summer. We were in the super regionals during the finals week. We were going to the WS when everyone was transitioning into the summer break. It is difficult to have that amount of excitement at that time. Do I wish there was more coverage because I thought the team really earned it? Yes!

I think the team earned every bit of the recognition they could have got, and I was disappointed that there was not more of that within even local Boston media and some other outlets.

I come at that from the perspective that I was so proud of what the team achieved. I wanted everybody to know this is what an MIT team can accomplish and I felt like that was not given quite as much recognition. That was disappointing.

Editor’s note: The interview was edited for clarity. The second part of the interview will run in the following issue, in which coach Williams discusses building team culture, evaluating success, and how transitioning from part-time to full-time coach has changed the way she approaches the job.