When Foxes’ softball coach Lisa Hess was young, she didn’t exactly sit around thinking she wanted to break any gender barriers; she just knew she wanted to play baseball. Constantly.
But as she got older, her tenacity and growing reputation as a feisty batter and fielder with a strong arm led to her selection in 1978 as the first girl in Penn Hills’ history to make a Pony League baseball team. Not only did she play in the previously all-boys’ league, she also competed up an age group and continued to do so until the boys got bigger and she didn’t.
“When I was growing up in our neighborhood, I played boys’ baseball,” says the former player. “Sometimes we’d go for four or five hours a day, and when no one was around, I practiced by myself for hours throwing a rubber ball against the back of my parents’ house. Practicing was fun and I did it because I liked it, not because anyone told me I had to practice. It was the first thing that I was successful at when I was young, so of course it drew me in.”
The coach says her evolution to the boys’ league was really an outgrowth of preferring baseball over slow pitch since, back then, girls didn’t normally have the opportunity to play it until high school. Later, when she was able to play at Penn Hills High School, Coach Hess wowed the crowds and her opponents and lettered all four years. She then went on to have an illustrious career at Slippery Rock University, where she earned another four letters, was co-captain of the team in her senior year, and graduated with a degree in teaching.
The family-minded coach took time off to raise her daughter and then, about eight years ago, decided to return to the sport that had stoked her passion so long ago. After a few years easing into the coaching side, in 2015 she volunteered as an assistant for the Fox Chapel Area High School Softball Team. She was quickly offered the open assistant coach position and last year was appointed head coach. During her first season leading the team, they went 9-3 and qualified for the WPIAL playoffs.
“Last year’s team would tell you they were disappointed they didn’t win the section, but I would tell you that while it was disappointing, I felt they learned a lot about what it takes to be a good, consistent team,” says the coach who credits her character to her father, an immigrant from Italy who didn’t know a word of English when he arrived in the U.S., and her mother, who never missed a game and was her biggest supporter. “The majority of that team is back and they have created goals for the season and have committed to reach them. They just need to believe in themselves and stay focused.”
They can get to that point, she says, by performing in practices they way they would in games and by developing an attitude of “next play,” something she’s constantly saying to the girls.
“Many times the girls take an error to heart and let it get to them,” she explains. “While it’s normal to be upset that you made an error, you have to let it go and move on to the next play. I want them to think ‘next play’ so that if they don’t get the first runner out during a game, maybe they will get the second one.”
She’s also always on the hunt for new ways to keep the girls engaged and spends an inordinate amount of time learning even more about the sport by reading and watching videos and NCAA Division I games on television.
“I’m constantly trying to find fun ways to work on the fundamentals, which, to be honest, aren’t that exciting,” Coach Hess admits. “But I believe if you practice the fundamentals, the game slows down for you and isn’t as stressful. In the end, I want them to do well so they can feel good about themselves and their accomplishments.”
Although the season is still young, Coach Hess and her team have high hopes of finishing in the top-three in WPIAL Class 6A-Section 2 and securing a spot in the WPIAL playoffs. With almost the entire team returning, they have the talent to succeed. But as Coach Hess points out, they will face strong competition, especially from Latrobe High School and the current state champs, Hempfield High School.
Ultimately, the second-year coach believes in the team and their ability to overcome some odds, especially if they can master her mindset of “next play, next opportunity, next game.”