I sat down with Lori Meyer, head softball coach for the past 33 years at Minnesota State. Under her leadership Minnesota State University has won three North Central Conference titles, five Northern Sun Intercollegiate titles, made 14 trips to the NCAA Division II National Tournament, three trips to the NCAA Championships, and won the NCAA Division II National Championship title in 2017. We talked about the 2017 championship season and what we can look forward to on the diamond this spring.
Q: Coming off a national championship, how satisfying and rewarding was it to reach the pinnacle of your career?
A: It’s an unbelievable experience. The win puts in perspective that in softball there have been 36 national championships since softball has been around in the NCAA. [That shows] the magnitude of how great of an opportunity, what a surreal experience it was to wait 33 years to receive an NCAA Division II National Championship. Every year you set out, as a coach, a goal to get one in your career. Third place in 1987, fifth place in 2011, and then last year, to go back and win it. I just felt fortunate to say I was able to be at the national tournament twice in my career and get those top five finishes. Now to say I won the national championship here at this university, and the trophy sits in my office. It still continues to be hard to be put into words. It is very rewarding and gratifying. I just wish everyone could have that experience—the student athletes and all my fellow coaches here at MNSU. It really is the pinnacle you chase throughout your career and to be able to say, “I’ve got one,” is really something special.
Q: What was running through your mind when you won the National Championship?
A: How we approached it out there, at the national tournament, was how we approached games all season. It’s just another game. One game at a time, one pitch at a time. I know it sounds cliché, but we really did go through our season like that—through the conference season, through the conference tournament, regionals, and super regionals. To me super regionals was maybe the most intense three-game series I’ve ever been through. That super regional against Harding was so intense. We had weather issues. We had won the first game in the tenth inning on a home run. We beat ourselves in game two, and then to come back in game three. We had such a tight zone and the score was 3-4. We were behind, and the weather moved in. There were just so many uncontrollable situations. Senior leadership kept the team grounded and played like it was just another game. We never said it was a last game, or a last practice. We knew what the atmosphere would be in Virginia. We would say, “Why not us?”
Q: What challenges did you face in 2017?
A: We only had 15 players on the roster and three of them were pitchers so having a small roster was one of the challenges. Another challenge was the lack of depth in a catching position. Two kids walked away in August right before school started and would have provided some depth if Cori Kennedy, our only catcher with experience, went down. We had to figure out how to keep Kennedy healthy so her legs and body could last. The schedule, too, was a challenge. We ended up playing 71 games, which is a lot of games. I go back to our seniors who provided tremendous leadership. They did a good job helping the two freshmen in the lineup, Amber Kral and Carly Esselman, adapt to the riggers of Division II softball and that transition from high school to college ball.
Q: Have you had time to reflect on what you and your team accomplished?
A. Yeah, I think we really have. The ring ceremony tied in with homecoming. The university did a tremendous job to make Team 33 feel special when they got their rings. A city bus, wrapped with a picture of the seniors holding up the trophy, picked them up and took them around campus. The bus took them down where football alumni and people were tailgating. The kids walked off the bus and held the trophy up. We were honored at halftime during the football game and at men’s hockey. I think that when you really look back at that day, I also think prior to that when we had the celebration Tuesday down at the Civic Center Plaza, none of us knew what to expect. No one knew if there would be 50 people or 100 hundred people, but when we pulled around that corner, the kids could see that a large crowd had gathered. Everything had been organized for them. I think that’s when it sunk in to our kids. When you win it out there, you win it, but you’re in the moment. The minute we won it we had a good chunk of time on the field for photos, then we all ate together. It was Memorial Day and the parents had to get on the road and back to work. We had to fly back. When we got back here, and for that celebration down at the Civic Center Plaza, that is when it sunk in to our kids what we had accomplished. I think for the first 24-48 hours, you can’t comprehend what you’ve done because you’re on such a high, it’s just like “oh my god, it’s unbelievable.” Once we got back, we had time to look back and realize those things—the kids can look at their championship rings and look at their trophies. Again the win is referenced everywhere. I think [then] you have time to step back and realize really how special and phenomenal it is.
Q: How important were your assistant coaches in last year’s success?
A. Everybody’s important. You know it doesn’t matter what role you have on this team, whether you’re the associate head coach, the graduate assistant, the bull pen catcher, the third or fourth string pitcher, everyone’s role is important. Last year it took the 15 players, the three coaches, our trainers, the strength and conditioning people, and sports information to accomplish what we accomplished. We are all a team together. We need the support of staff to help get us where we’re at, and need Coach Wolcott calling the games. I think she’s one of the best at calling the games, working with our pitchers and catchers, and what she does with the defense and hitting. It was our first year with Sammie Hildreth, a graduate assistant, who brought to the table, her personality—she’s a good blend between me and Wolcott—and [her experience] with hitting and catching. Our staff works well together. We can all check our egos at the door. We can be open, and we can agree to disagree, but again, we always have at heart what is the best for the team. We have to all work together, and I think we do a really good job of that. We also do a really good job at teaching life lessons. We do character development and community engagement. I think it’s a great philosophy for student athletes in Division II. It’s not just about the wins and losses. It’s about them getting their degree, it’s about leaving here as independent young women. In the scheme of life, softball is just a game. No matter if you went 0-3 that day, at the end of the day, step back. Do you have your health? Do you have both your parents? Do you have a bed to go home and sleep in? Do you still have an opportunity to have three meals on the table? Life’s pretty good isn’t it? That’s what I think. We do a really good job in teaching core values of family, success, integrity, passion, and respect. We embrace those core values, and we do a really good job of working with one another. We work smart, work efficiently, and bring new ideas to the table.
Q: Outside of winning, what enjoyment do you get out of coaching softball?
A: Watching student athletes develop from day one when you start recruiting them. They might be eighth graders, ninth graders, tenth graders, eleventh graders, seniors. Getting them here and watching them grow as people is so enjoyable. Our goal is to have them leave here with degree in hand, and leave as strong, independent young women. So, really it’s watching a kid grow as a person, and it’s also watching her grow as a ballplayer. We do a good job here to get the kids out their comfort zone. We can coach them as the potential we see they can do. They come in and their ceiling limit is “here”…I know you can play up to “here.” It’s enjoyable to watch them grow as people and students. Most kids come in as marginal students. They graduated, they came in as a Maverick achievement award winner and achieved the Dean’s List. And, that’s very fulfilling. It’s about the relationships you build.
Q: What was your off-season like?
A: It was crazy busy. When we got back the first week of June, we felt like we were behind in recruiting. We were finishing up paperwork, recruiting and getting ready for the next year. We blinked and it felt like August was here. It was time to go again. We had to wrap up the season, end the fiscal year, work on budgets, and had administrative meetings. We were asked to speak at the Hitting Summit. So, we did that. It was whirlwind of a summer. It wasn’t a typical summer to have time for Lori Meyer. But, that’s okay. I’d do it again.
Q: What is the expectation for this upcoming season?
A: Our expectations haven’t really changed from season to season. Team 33 graduated so there will never be another team like Team 33, and the reason I say that is Team 33 was made up of those personalities. Team 34 has to have its own personality; its own identity. Just like the 2011 team that played for the Championship. Our goals and expectations stay pretty consistent. We expect to be a top team in the NSIC, a top team in the region, and we expect to do well in the season, in the conference tournament, and to make post season. We haven’t changed those expectations. Those are the expectations in this program each year. What do we have to do with such a young team? We have got to get those kids to believe that. They have to have confidence and trust the process, and to realize they can play and achieve those things.
Q: What do you feel you have left to accomplish after winning a National Championship?
A: I don’t think winning a National Championship defines you. I think what defines you is consistency in your career. So, I think I have a lot more left. I look at it as a challenge: How are we going to respond because we have such a young team after coming back and winning? Are we going to be the first team to win a national championship and then go to the bottom of the cellar? That to me is not acceptable.
What I tell my players is that it doesn’t mean anything to me if you hit 300-400 one year. Do it consistently. We are not going to sell this program short and say we have 12 new kids, or now we have a lot of new kids and can’t do what we did before. We are not going to give an excuse. We will consistently continue to be a top program. It’s also my job to continue to mentor other young coaches in Division II softball and women’s athletics. I also will continue to develop the young student athletes I have in my program and in this MSU athletic program that I have the opportunity to be involved in. To watch them develop and grow as people is rewarding. I still think I have a lot left to offer and a lot left to accomplish. I’m not ready to say “I won the trophy. I’m done. Let’s retire.” “Why wouldn’t you retire after 33 years of winning it all in such a magical season you had?” I’ve been asked that a lot, and I think there’s more yet to do. I don’t think one trophy defines it. I think there’s more that I can continue to offer.
Q: What do you do outside of coaching to decompress?
A: I like to work out, and I’m an outdoors person. I have a horse, a Missouri Fox Trotter, and I love to go horseback riding and camping. I enjoy trail riding, and I have a great group of friends to go with. I missed all of that last summer. That’s okay. I also like to spend time with my two great nephews who come down from Maple Grove. Spending time with them goes back to my childhood when I would spend time with my cousins in Des Moines. My mom lives with me and that’s their great grandmother. They are 5 and almost 3—fun ages—and I enjoy teaching them how to ride. I’m not a complicated person. I enjoy the simple life.
Contributed by Sloane Bergert, Athletic Communications Intern