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Black Knights' DePolo Obsessive, But Not Repulsive

The following article on first-year Army head softball coach Michelle DePolo appeared on New York on April 21, 2010.  It was written by Ronald Mergenthaler.

It started getting weird early. Michelle DePolo was in her first season as an assistant softball coach at Army. It was just past 10 p.m. and she was still hitting fly balls to all those players who were interested in a little extra work.

"Then I got a call from the coach," she said of then-Army head coach Jim Flowers. "He said the lights were supposed to be out by 10 and the MPs were called."

So much for that particular practice. But the mind set has continued. In her first season as head coach of the Black Knights they have already exceeded the number of victories of any of their last four seasons. Something of a losing mentality has been replaced by players who have become as manic to learn as their new coach is to teach. For DePolo, that has been going on since grade school.

"Even when I was in high school, in grammar school playing, I was thinking about what I needed to know now," she said. "That's what I thought about all the time. What would I do in this situation? I watched softball until my eyes bled. We'd be at these tournaments and I'd be watching for 12 hours. It's what I did."

And it's what she continues to do, with increasing proficiency. The Black Knights have won 25 of their first 40 games, pretty much with the same lineup that finished 21-34 last season. Why?

"It's a lot of things," she said. "We work intensely. I just love being at West Point."

So much so that it was her aspiration to attend it as a student. But a hole in her heart made her medically ineligible. The irony is her father was a retired Naval Commander. No, there were no meltdowns at the dinner table.

"He was sitting next to me and heard about what I wanted to do and he said, 'Why not?' " DePolo said. "Funny thing is my brother was recruited to play baseball at Navy. What I liked was the discipline. I liked the idea of service. It's why the service academies clearly existed. I believe in compulsory service. I believe in giving back."

Ironically, despite her near obsession about softball, it was her soccer play that drew the most interest from college recruiters. She won a full scholarship at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, NJ, where she played not only softball and soccer, but basketball. But softball remained her first love and the sport in which she most excelled.

"Some people said 'No,' they didn't like that," DePolo said. "Then something clicked. This is what I want to do."

And it wasn't just the practice and more practice she sought as a means of improvement.

"I'd send tapes to my brother and ask him what I was doing wrong," DePolo said. "In college, I replaced an All American and she threw harder and I was frustrated. I wanted to be a fastball pitcher, which lasted one or two times. So I started pitching slower. I'd throw a breaking ball, then a change up, and the hitters were ahead of that. So then I'd be able to sneak a fastball past them. I never considered myself a great athlete. I was relatively slow, had the hole in my heart. I guess there were times I was just happy I was able to play."

She subsequently coached two years of high-school ball before going back to Georgian Court as an assistant for a year, then to a smiliar job at Smith College, in 2005. She spent two years as an assistant at Army before taking over as the boss following last season.

Flowers coached Army for 19 years, and, no, DePolo isn't thinking about length of tenure, at least not yet. But she enjoys the rare opportunity of doing what she loves where she loves.

"I can't imagine being any place else but West Point," she said. "I didn't want a job. I wanted this job."

And about those 10 p.m. practices?

"Now," she said, "we stop at 9:30."
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