Last summer, UMBC outfielder Mallory Pollack waited for her softball team's future to walk through the door.
Chris Kuhlmeyer had already been interviewed once for the Retrievers' head coaching job, which was open for the second time in four years. But now it was time for him to be questioned by Pollack and infielder Imani Dawson, both of whom were part of UMBC's search committee.
Like the other members of the search committee, Pollack had questions -- about 30 in all -- written down on a piece of paper. They were generic ones like, "What's your coaching style?"
But the main question everyone from the administration to the players had on their minds was if Kuhlmeyer could stabilize a turbulent program and win.
The previous three years had been full of uncertainty for Pollack and the rest of the upperclassmen. Longtime coach Joe French unexpectedly retired after the 2016 season, and Heather Gelbard coached the team from 2017-2018 before moving on. The Retrievers went 12-31 in 2018.
Kuhlmeyer immediately impressed Pollack, at the time a rising senior, and Dawson, a rising sophomore. And nine months later, as the Retrievers claimed the America East title, all the uncertainty that had shrouded the program was a distant memory.
"I just definitely think Coach K is the perfect fit for this program," Pollack said.
UMBC went 4-0 in the America East tournament to win the conference for the first time in program history, which capped off its first winning season in five years. With help from a talented young core led by freshman left-handed pitcher Courtney Coppersmith, the Retrievers earned their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth out of the America East.
"It's been a joy for me just to ... take over a program like UMBC and turn it around with just good people and having fun with them," Kuhlmeyer said. "It's an experience I'll never forget."
The Retrievers were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament with losses to Oklahoma and Notre Dame, but the losses didn't sting the players that much. They had set a precedent for their program and started a new tradition for future players to build upon.
"I'm sad that I can't spend another season with this group of girls," Pollack said. "But it makes me happy knowing that I'm leaving on this successful note, because knowing that I and the other two seniors left a really good mark on this program is a really good feeling."
Coppersmith Is 'Whole Package'
UMBC Athletic Communications
Kuhlmeyer didn't know much about Coppersmith when he officially took over the program, but it didn't take long for him, and the rest of Division I softball, to see what the previous coaching staff saw in her.
When a new coach inherits the previous coach's recruits, it can be difficult to determine if the same players fit the new coach's vision for the team, and a slew of decommitments can occur after the leadership transition. Even if certain players check all the boxes for the new coach, they might have moved on to another school.
That wasn't the case with Coppersmith, and it paid off for her and for UMBC.
"It's very rare," Kuhlmeyer said of keeping a player of Coppersmith's caliber. "Give the credit to the previous staff. They did a good job of selling the school and the role she could have here. Coming in as a first-year coach and having a pitcher like that is big time. It's rare to have a player like that stay close to home, go to a school like UMBC and put them on the map."
From the time Coppersmith stepped into the circle against Delaware Feb. 10, she has been a force for the team. The York, Pa., native finished the year with a 1.97 ERA and 21 wins. She led all Division I freshmen with 346 strikeouts, and she led the country in strikeouts per seven innings.
Oh, and she threw a perfect game against Binghamton March 31.
"It's hard to explain something like that because it doesn't happen very much," Coppersmith said. "But it was great. We had a lot of strong defensive plays behind me that just helped ensure the perfect game."
Coppersmith's seven-strikeout performance was the second perfect game in program history and the first that lasted longer than five innings (it went six). She also went 3-for-3 with three RBIs to help lock up the team's first series win against Binghamton since 2009
The perfect game was one of five no-hitters she threw in 2019.
"It's amazing to play behind a powerhouse pitcher like her," Pollack said. "She has that killer instinct that she's going to take down these batters, whether it's putting the ball in play or striking them out. I don't even have words. It was just really awesome to see, and she's such a great person, which makes it even better."
Coppersmith, who posted 10 strikeouts in her first appearance with the team, quickly became a centerpiece of UMBC's success.
"Believe it or not, being an important part of the team can put a lot of pressure on you and you take responsibility for things that aren't necessarily in your control," Coppersmith said. "But you have to realize that we're going to make plays and sometimes we're not. It's just the whole game of softball."
And the scariest part, at least for her opponents, is that her coaches and teammates believe she is going to get better.
"She's got a lot of room for growth," Kuhlmeyer said. "It's going to be crazy to see what she looks like after the summer working on some of the things we talked about in our exit interview. But for her to come in and do some of the things she's doing is a rare thing. You don't see it very often."
Coppersmith and the Retrievers won their first three games of the America East tournament in West Hartford, Conn., which led to a matchup between fourth-seeded UMBC and second-seeded Stony Brook May 11. With a win, the Retrievers would win the conference. Stony Brook, which had swept UMBC during the regular season, needed to beat the Retrievers twice to win the double-elimination tournament.
After playing well for most of the season, UMBC hit a rough patch to end the regular season. They closed out April by losing six of seven games, and that included two shutouts and a blowout loss to Albany.
Things quickly changed for the team in May, though. The Retrievers won five of their six games during the month heading into May 11.
One of those wins was against Stony Brook the previous day, but Stony Brook had always seemed to give UMBC more trouble than it could handle.
"They have this swagger attitude that's honestly pretty intimidating," Pollack said. "And they're really good players with great hitters and a great pitching staff."
The Retrievers needed to beat Stony Brook one more time to claim the championship, and they more than stepped up to the challenge.
Coppersmith threw her second-best game of the tournament, allowing three hits and striking out 10 batters. A swing and miss from Stony Brook's Chloe Vangorder in the seventh sealed the game, and the Retrievers walked away with a 4-0 win, a championship trophy and an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
The next week was full of excitement for the players, particularly because their first game in the NCAA Tournament was against Oklahoma, then ranked No. 1 in the nation, in Norman, Okla.
"That was insane," Pollack said. "I was surrounded by a crowd. It was so loud I couldn't even hear our coach give pitching signals."
It also gave them the chance to be on the same field as a team recognized as one of the perennially great softball programs.
"It's crazy," Coppersmith said. "You're on live TV, you're playing against people that, for me, you've looked up to since freshman and sophomore year of high school. And the fact that you're playing them now is completely mind-blowing."
Pollack and the rest of the 2019 seniors will be gone next year, but Coppersmith and the young Retrievers will look to continue the success they had this year. That progression is what Coppersmith knows will take them from being a one-time champion to a consistent contender.
"The fact that this was our first year with a new coach and a bunch of freshmen coming in and seeing how successful we all were gives us a great foundation to build off of," she said. "We'll continue to play with that same drive, that same teamwork that we have this year and go off of that."
Photo Credit: Steve McLaughlin/UMBC Athletic Communications
Issue 255: June/July 2019
Originally published June 19, 2019