Colonials get the culture right, earn berth in 2022 NISC
By Kyle Koso
From time to time, a college athletic program will look at its ragged resume, decide it’s time for radical surgery and go for a gigantic reset with a young coach – clean house, clear the air and climb from the depths.
In taking over the head coaching spot for George Washington softball in her mid-30’s, Chrissy Schoonmaker fits the bill as one of those young early-achieving types, but it was a different situation with the Colonials for her debut season in 2022. GW had just earned the program’s first-ever NCAA tourney berth the year before under coach Shane Winkler, who won 91 games in three seasons before moving to East Carolina.
The Colonials were hardly downtrodden, and no one wanted to see the team downshift in the transition moment to Schoonmaker. Fortified by confidence earned in her assistant coaching days and blessed with a roster that had experience as well as fresh faces ready to contribute, she piloted GW to a 36-15 record (21-3 in the Atlantic-10) and a berth in the 2022 National Invitational Softball Championships (May 20-26).
George Washington, seeded fifth, will play No. 12 Kansas in Round 1.
Schoonmaker played at South Carolina from 2004-08 and was a volunteer assistant there under head coach Bev Smith, arguably her most impactful early influence. Coaching stints at Houston, UConn, Texas Tech and Harvard also broadened her view; it helped take a lot of mystery out of how to proceed.
“I’ve had great mentors in my career; I learned a ton, learned to do it the right way. And then there’s 10-12 years as an assistant trying to figure out, what are my philosophies along with (how to work) with the head coach?” Schoonmaker said. “And that whole time, you’re developing your beliefs for when that opportunity comes. I firmly believe in culture; we focus on it daily. Talking about it when I took the job, the big three things were culture -- the environment we create as leaders; player development, growing them as people, athletes, teammates and students; and recruiting, which is the lifeblood of the program.
“It’s a program that has had success. To lead people, you have to know who they are, and I’ve been intentional about building the relationships with my players. What are their goals? The more I understand, the easier it is to lead them as individuals to those goals, and then as a team.”
One effective mechanism for that had the squad meeting in right field after fall practices, sitting down to tackle questions out of a book designed to spark conversation and deepen the players’ appreciation for each other. It did two disparate things at once – cement intensity and a desire to play hard for each other, while also laying out when a gentle word of comfort would be appropriate.
The team embraced the thought that they weren’t “defending” an A-10 title, as that was something that could never be diminished. The 2022 season meant a new coach, a new year, a new opportunity for achievement. Getting her roster in the right spot mentally was a big help for Schoonmaker, who could then work out her fresh touches on a program that had just won the A-10 title outright.
“GW was coming off a great season in 2019; 2020 was COVID, but 2021 was another tremendous year as the team made its first NCAA appearance. There were high expectations, and the returners had a taste of success,” she said. “A lot of talent graduated (after 2021); the challenge was to continue with championship standards and behavior, while developing younger players who hadn’t been in major roles. I was mindful of that; our standards were still to be in position to compete for a championship at the end of the year.”
A demanding but instructive pre-conference slate got the Colonials ready for another strong A-10 run, and they had the best regular-season record by a comfortable margin. At the league tournament, however, GW fell early to Fordham, 1-0, then lost to the Rams one more time in the double-elim final to miss out on the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m proud of how we did fight and compete in the tournament. We had an outstanding start with a win over Saint Louis; that 1-0 game with Fordham was a hiccup, a real clean game with two great pitching performances, both teams with three hits,” she said. “Their three hits were strung together, and they beat us. In the final, we competed hard. Fordham had clutch hits and we weren’t as sharp as we could have been, but we never quit. I was so proud of them – happy with the grit and fight and how they showed up every day.
“You don’t get to choose the results, but you can choose how you show up. Saturday (May 14), we felt like we got punched, you could see it in the right-field huddle. I shared we might get to go to the (NISC); I wasn’t sure at that moment, and it gave the team a glimmer of hope as I was looking at six people who thought their collegiate careers were over. Sunday night, we got the bid to come to Colorado, and the team was thrilled, excited to continue the journey and play together. They haven’t lost anything; they were disappointed and felt like they got punched, but they are ready to compete and are focused on what’s next.”
The NISC (held at the TC Colorado Field next to the home office of Triple Crown Sports) is another chance for a George Washington all-timer to flex her skills – graduate student Sierra Lange was the repeat A-10 pitcher of the year after going 27-9 with a 2.25 ERA and 210 strikeouts in 217.2 innings pitched. She’s also the team’s leadoff hitter, hitting .338 with 48 runs and 19 stolen bases.
The No. 2 hitter in the order is the A-10 player of the year, sophomore Alexa Williams. She hit .379 with 11 home runs and 52 RBI (she has 93 RBI in 96 games played). GW gets more punch from Allessandra Ponce, the program’s all-time leader in doubles who doubles as the team’s calming presence.
“If we get frazzled, she’s the one who gets everyone together and back on the same page,” Schoonmaker said.
Other key contributors include cleanup hitter Mia Parker, who had just 10 at-bats last year but has blossomed in her role at second base; shortstop Hannah Eslick (a first-team A-10 selection); Maggie Greco, arguably the infield’s top glove at third base; and freshman Maddie Spell, who hit .320 mostly out of the No. 8 spot in the batting order.