Gino Olivieri took over as Coppin State's softball coach this season, and he noticed something interesting when he began practice with the Eagles last fall. Danielle Smith, one of the team's top hitters, seemed to be struggling at times handling outside pitches.
The two discussed Smith focusing more on driving outside pitches the opposite way. Smith took the new coach's advice, and the move paid off. She hit .359 as a junior, but her average jumped to .505 during her senior season. The NCAA recently recognized her as the top hitter in Division I.
The NCAA bases its national statistics on players having at least 2.5 plate appearances per game, playing in 75 percent of their school's games. Smith won the title by going 55-for-109 in 36 games this season, on a team that finished 5-31.
Smith often batted leadoff, topped Coppin State in 15 total hitting categories and posted a 12-game hitting streak at season's end. She got at least two hits in 16 of the team's 36 games with season bests in hits and RBIs, respectively, coming against Albany (four) and Howard (five).
Olivieri knew Smith had already established herself as a solid hitter when he took over the team. But he appreciated that Smith worked on adjusting to hitting outside pitches the opposite way.
New coaches sometimes have problems getting players to make a change. Smith never blinked, and the move paid off for everyone.
"She made a big adjustment and [started] hitting the outside pitches to right field instead of being out in front of the ball and popping up," Olivieri said. "You let the [pitch] get a little deeper, and drive it to right field. She [wound up] driving anything that was on the outside part of the plate to right field."
Smith certainly enjoyed winning the title and is glad it brought Coppin State some national recognition as well.
"I think it's great because all of my hard work and success and everything I put into softball paid off," she said. "Going to a small school, it's pretty cool to see your name on the leader board. It gets our name out there. It shows that we do have good players and can produce good players."
Smith struck out only four times during the 2016 season, but said she did not closely follow her batting average this year. Smith said she realized she was having a good year but wasn't obsessed with the numbers. She just kept hitting.
"I knew I had a really high batting average at the beginning of the season," Smith said. "It just kept floating around the .500 area. I walked into school one day and someone said, ‘You're leading the NCAA in [hitting].' I never checked it. I just knew I had a high batting average. I was very shocked."
Even though Smith did not pay much attention to her statistics, numbers now will become a big part of her life on a daily basis.
Smith graduated from Coppin State and wants to become an accountant. The Rising Sun, Md., native had an internship at a public accounting firm this summer and will start graduate school in the fall.
Smith is still keeping in touch with softball. She coached with local travel teams and played softball in a summer women's league, which she participated in during college, that was scheduled to compete in five tournaments.
Smith is a natural right-handed hitter, but became a switch-hitter in travel ball to try and do a little more damage. However, she went back to hitting only right-handed as a junior and stayed that way this year, another move that paid off for her and Coppin State.
The Eagles and Olivieri are in the process of building the program, and the team will bring in 12 new players this year. However, the coach said he'll miss working with the nation's best hitter.
"Her work ethic is incredible," Olivieri said. "She's your typical .300 hitter. She's just a fantastic athlete. I wish I had 20 Danielles, and I wish I had her for more than the one year I had her."
Issue 224: August 2016