Coppin State head softball coach Gino Olivieri made a bold statement regarding the Eagles' future: They can win the northern division of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
It's a confident assertion from the fourth-year coach. Although the Eagles have made an appearance in the MEAC tournament the past two seasons, they haven't finished the year with a winning record since 2011 and have a record of 22-33 under Olivieri.
Even though Coppin began the year 2-8, the Eagles' freshman class -- the largest they've had in at least 24 years -- has Olivieri excited about what it can bring to the program.
"I have freshmen who can contribute and start right away," said Olivieri, whose team starts conference play March 23. "I have three who can start right now, and the depth they give me is tremendous."
Olivieri took over as the Eagles' head coach in 2016 after the team stumbled to a 5-31 record the previous season. Since then, the former Alfred University coach -- who won Empire 8 Conference Coach of the Year honors in 2015 -- has been recruiting aggressively.
Olivieri started his tenure by bringing in seven and nine freshmen in 2016 and 2017, respectively. This year, after signing just five players in 2018, Coppin State has 11 true freshmen on its roster, marking the largest class for the program in more than two decades.
This is the most talented group of players Olivieri has signed during his time with the Eagles, according to the coach. The group includes starting catcher Melanie Aguilera.
"We've developed pretty well, especially our pitchers," Aguilera said. "As a [freshman] group, we're a pretty solid family and we're really united."
Aguilera, who was a second-team All-Hacienda League selection during her senior season at Charter Oak High School in Covina, Calif., is one of Coppin State's young players Olivieri said brings stability to her position. She is tied for the team lead in batting average (.444) and hits (eight) entering play March 19.
"She has a strong arm and she can throw runners out from her knees," Olivieri said. "She's tall, she's thin, she's quick…and she can hit the ball really well, too. She's had a lot to learn right away."
Aguilera knew the program's history when she was being recruited by Olivieri; in fact, she and the other freshmen welcomed the challenge of turning a team that had consistently finished in the bottom half of the conference into a perennial contender.
So, they started building their chemistry last summer by creating a Snapchat group in addition to the shared email that Olivieri set up for them. In the months that followed, they talked about what they could do to change the team for the better.
"People were telling us that [Coppin State] don't have a good winning streak and things like that," Aguilera said. "I said, 'OK, but I can change that. We can change that.'"
Olivieri knew he had something special in the group early this past fall. Despite being "young and raw," he said, there were signs these players could be great.
"I said, 'Boy, if I can get some consistency out of that greatness, we're going to be a heck of a team," he said.
One area the freshmen have been able to provide immediate help with is depth, which Olivieri and the Eagles did not have last season. Senior pitcher Madison Didion had to stay in the circle for the entirety of Coppin State's 4-3 loss to Hampton University, which lasted for 13 innings, in the second round of the MEAC tournament in 2018.
Last year, Coppin State had only two pitchers on its roster; there are eight players on the pitching staff this year, six of whom are freshmen. Didion said the increased depth has made "a huge difference."
"Last year, I threw a bulk of the games, so seeing all these girls who are pitchers, whether they can come in for a few innings for a whole game is going to be a huge difference for me," Didion said.
Olivieri, who likes to utilize as much of his bench as possible, called it a luxury to have a healthy amount of depth for every position on the team.
"It's a convenience," he said. "To be able to turn to your bench and say, 'I need a pinch hitter or a pinch runner' and have it … and be able to rely on those freshmen when you need it is a luxury."
Although the Eagles are a deeper team than in previous years, Olivieri and Didion described the team as young, meaning the underclassmen will have to step up to high pressure situations. Aguilera faced one such moment against Central Arkansas March 1.
"We were losing, and everyone was getting down on themselves, so I had to be the one in the dugout who try to everyone that we still got this," she said.
Didion said she can tell when the underclassmen are nervous, and their jitters do slightly affect them at times. But they are able to play through it, which she said is important.
"It doesn't matter if you're a freshman starting in any sport, going in and starting in a game is nerve-wracking," Didion said. "If they were a little nervous, they were able to push through it, and by the end of the game, it looked like they had been there forever. It's good to see that and not let those feelings take over."
And as for Olivieri's prediction about winning the north, Aguilera thinks it can be done.
"We freshmen, we like to compete," she said. "Winning the conference is something that we really want. I can definitely see it."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Coppin State Athletics