By Brandon Yopp
Assistant Media Relations Director
Raleigh, N.C. - When Lisa Navas took on the task of assembling a brand new softball program at NC State in late June of 2002, people in the coaching industry chuckled. Who would want to build a program from scratch at a school with no fast-pitch history and next to nothing in the realm of softball experience?
Was this some kind of joke?
After three seasons, who’s laughing now?
Navas’ head coaching experience began at Division II Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., where she amassed a 335-134-1 record that spanned nine years of leadership. Under her direction, the Buccaneers won two conference championships and reached regional play five times in six years. She led her 1994 squad to a fifth-place finish at the NCAA Tournament, while grabbing a berth in the national championship finals in 1998.
Following her stint at Barry, Navas wound up just a short drive west of Raleigh on I-40 as an assistant coach at rival North Carolina for two seasons. She helped the Tar Heels to a 38-19 record in 2001, capturing the school’s first ACC championship and NCAA regional appearance. Following the 2002 run, in which North Carolina finished second in the league, Navas was ready to run her own show again.
This time, however, she didn’t have to move quite as far.
“The whole reason I took the job at North Carolina was in hopes of getting the NC State job and starting that program,” said Navas. “Once I got it, I was overwhelmed with everything I had to do. From ordering pencils to stationary to everything else, for a while it was only me. At North Carolina I was only in charge of equipment, so I was totally taken back by all the things that I had to manage that you don’t usually think about.
“The first year was the most difficult because I was so excited, but I didn’t really have anyone to share it with. I didn’t have an office or a computer on campus either, so that made things really difficult. I had to go buy a house so I could have an office. I didn’t feel like my feet were on the ground because I was just so excited, but incredibly busy at the same time.”
When the players that would eventually break the ground of the program arrived on campus in the fall of 2003, it was a landmark moment not only for NC State, but for Navas as well.
“Actually having the kids on campus for the first time was just astounding,” said Navas. “At our first team picnic I could barely breathe because it was a whole new chapter starting. It was such a great feeling finally having everything in place and putting the pieces together. Up until that point everything had been done either online or over the phone, so the first few weeks of having everyone together was just such a special time. My parents even came up for the picnic and that really meant the world to me. Their support has been tremendous from day one.”
Once practice began the honeymoon was over.
“After our first practice, assistant coach Tanya Spishak said ‘We’re not very good.’” Navas said. “I said ‘Coach, it’s our job to teach them to throw and catch and make them the best that we can, but don’t let them know that.’ We took on the motto of ‘FIRST WHAT?’ We weren’t going to let anyone tell us what we weren’t suppose to do.”
When all was said and done, the team wasn’t bad at all for a first-year program. Navas directed the Pack to a 32-27 record as the squad kicked off its inaugural season with the first win in school history on February 14, 2004. Her coaching sparked an 11-game winning streak in late March and early April, and at one stretch in the season the Wolfpack won 21 of 25 games. Fielding a team of 14 freshmen on a 19-player roster, Navas recruited and coached an ACC Player of the Week (Abbie Sims), two no-hitters (Shaina Ervin in back-to-back games) and team totals of 36 home runs and 53 doubles with four players hitting .290 or better for the season. The pitching staff fashioned an impressive 2.10 ERA and a .225 opponents batting average, while striking out 456 batters in 399 1/3 innings.
The sequel, in 2005, avoided the sophomore slump and got off to a hot start with a 10-1 beginning to the season. The group won eight games late in the year and defeated North Carolina three times in four games, including the teams’ first win in the ACC Tournament. Overall, the 2005 team went an impressive 41-25 and finished fourth in the ACC with a 7-7 conference mark, narrowly missing the postseason. The team also had its first all-conference team members, as Sims and Jen Chamberlin were selected first-team All-ACC and Heather Gelbard was named second-team. Sims made the NFCA all-region team, while Gelbard was named an ESPN the Magazine CoSida Academic All-American, the first in school history.
“We felt like we were very close to getting into the NCAA Tournament, but knowing the process and looking back on it, I guess I really knew we weren’t going to make it,” said Navas. “We didn’t do a lot of the little things. We had to do it all year long, not just at the end of the year, for good things to happen to us. It was a motivator for us to see some of the teams chosen that we had really competed with or beaten. It made us really confident going into year three.”
In 2006 Navas and the team finally put it all together. Utilizing a deep pitching staff, stout defense and timely hitting that showcased one of the top power teams in the conference, the Wolfpack took the ACC by storm. Picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches’ poll, NC State won six of its seven three-game ACC series and swept a doubleheader from North Carolina on the last day of the regular season to win the ACC regular-season title.
“I can clearly remember in our team meeting last January that we all agreed that there was no reason we shouldn’t win the ACC,” said Navas. “We had the pitching, the hitting and the defense. The girls just had to put everything together and decide that’s what they wanted to do.”
With a 14-6 conference record in the regular season - four more league wins than the first two seasons combined - NC State went into the ACC Championship as the No. 1 seed. After a dominating 8-0 shutout of Boston College, the Wolfpack bats couldn’t put a run on the board as perennial power Florida State won 6-0 to put NC State on the brink of elimination. The Pack then went on a historic run to the finals, winning four straight games, an ACC Tournament first, to capture the title. The team won it all with victories over Virginia Tech, North Carolina (twice) and Florida State in the title game, 4-1.
With both the ACC regular-season and tournament championships under its collective belt, Navas and company made the NCAA Tournament field and collected a win over Princeton. Following the whirlwind season, the National Fastpitch Coaches Association tabbed Navas and her assistants as the coaching staff of the year in the Southeast Region. Sims and Shaina Ervin each grabbed first-team All-ACC honors and Chamberlin was selected to the second-team.
As for Navas? She was tabbed ACC Coach of the Year for writing the screenplay to one of the most dramatic seasons in the history of the league.
“Everybody thought I was crazy when I went to North Carolina, and it was crazy because I was at a well-established program at Barry,” said Navas. “Why would I go from being a head coach to an assistant at UNC? My parents thought I was nuts. But to go to North Carolina and achieve my goal of taking the job at NC State, it was a dream come true. Being named coach of the year was an honor, but if we didn’t win then I’m not coach of the year and that’s the reality of it.”
With the 2007 regular season slated to begin in just under two months, the jury is still out on what to make of this year’s team. With 16 players returning, nine of which are seniors, Navas will take her chances. After all, the Pack has been defying the odds for three years now.
“The funniest thing to me is that everybody has told me, as we’ve gone through the process, what we’re supposed to be doing,” said Navas. “I’ve tried to keep the kids from limiting themselves.
“We were a first year program, so we were supposed to lose. We were in our second year, so we were having a sophomore slump. Nobody has ever said ‘You’re supposed to be good, so go out there and get it,’ but that’s what we say to ourselves. As a coaching staff, we have to do things to keep our players focused on today and focused on always getting better.”
It might just be that take-one-day-at-a-time approach that has allowed Navas to build such a steady contender at NC State. With a knack for focusing on the little things, she leaves no stone unearthed when preparing her team, constantly looking for ways to improve both herself, her staff and her student-athletes.
“When we get ready to play, we talk about us,” said Navas. “What can we do?
“We talk about who we are playing, what their strengths and weakness are. What we can accomplish. I can give you 50,000 cliches about playing the game, not the name or something like that, but it’s like, this is what we have. This is what we are good at. Let’s win this battle.”
If there’s one thing the Pack has done under Navas, it’s win, to the tune of 123 games in just three seasons.
Two weekend’s ago the coaching staff was presented with its award for regional coaching staff of the year by the NFCA at the organization’s annual meeting in Tucson, Ariz.
“This honor means the world to me being recognized by our peers,” said Navas. “Now we can close the chapter on 2006 and look forward to the next step, 2007.”
Apparently the joke’s on everyone else.