H.S. Softball: Amherst coach Emma Mendoker has alma mater on the road back

  • Amherst softball coach Emma Mendoker has guided her alma mater to the state tournament, and the Hurricanes open Friday on the road at Ludlow in the MIAA Division 2 preliminary round. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Amherst softball coach Emma Mendoker has guided her alma mater to the state tournament, and the Hurricanes open Friday on the road at Ludlow in the MIAA Division 2 preliminary round. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Amherst softball coach Emma Mendoker has guided her alma mater to the state tournament, and the Hurricanes open Friday on the road at Ludlow in the MIAA Division 2 preliminary round. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer
Published: 6/2/2022 9:28:16 PM

For several years after longtime head coach Kacey Schmitt retired after the 2016 season, the Amherst softball program was unmoored. Replacement coaches came and went each year as the consistency and development that had flourished under Schmitt for so long was gone in what felt like the blink of an eye.

It was a long fall from grace for a program that had soared to such great heights not that long ago – the Hurricanes reached the Western Mass. final 17 times since 1978, winning 10 of those sectional championships. But its last title was back in 2011, when Schmitt was still at the helm. 

The Hurricanes needed some stability, and they needed it soon.

Enter Emma Mendoker.

If the name sounds familiar, it should – if Schmitt is synonymous with Amherst’s softball legacy, Mendoker is one of the stars that allowed its success to continue. As a sophomore, Mendoker literally dropped into Schmitt’s lap, transferring from New Jersey to Amherst. Schmitt was in need of a prolific pitcher at the time, and Mendoker was just the person she was looking for.

As a high schooler, Mendoker hurled over 1,000 strikeouts and won two Western Mass. titles, including the program’s most recent one in 2011. Along the way, she was named ESPN RISE 2010-11 Gatorade Massachusetts Softball Player of the Year, one of many accolades she collected over a decorated softball career.

But this isn’t a story about Mendoker’s playing days. The star pitcher has now moved on to the second phase of her sports career – head coach at her alma mater.

“When I was here [as a student-athlete], it was probably the best time in my life. I loved my team and I loved the school and I just wanted to pay it back,” Mendoker said. “When the opportunity to coach arose, I was like, ‘Yeah!’ I was really excited about it.” 

Mendoker knew what she was getting into when she stepped into the program – gone were the title-winning teams that she had played on as a student-athlete. When Schmitt retired, she also stopped coaching the middle school softball program and softball camps, and nobody had picked them up. As a result, quite a few of the players that Mendoker was now coaching had never played softball before because they’d never had sufficient opportunities to try the sport when they were younger. 

“Emma has to teach way more of the mental aspect of the game than I had to when I was coaching, not that I didn’t continue to work on that. But kids had a lot of that as a basis already when they came in to me,” Schmitt said. “For Emma, she has a job of also teaching them the game itself, not just their individual skills. And that’s starting at a much earlier point in their learning curve than I had to.” 

Luckily, Mendoker hasn’t had to take on that challenge alone. Her two assistant coaches, Kayleigh Callanan and Dana Sherokow, have been with her during both of her seasons at the helm. She met both of them through softball – Callanan at Planet Fastpitch in Uxbridge, where Mendoker has spent extensive time training and coaching, and Sherokow through slowpitch softball. 

“(Callanan and I) had the same approach with softball, same kind of mindset when it comes to being a softball player, and what that means. She's younger than me, she's a UMass student right now, but she's really like family to me because we've been through Planet Fastpitch together,” Mendoker said. “(Dana) has been very, very helpful in coaching as well. He's coached softball before, and he's coached high school. So he was really able to help me come up with different drills and just be another set of eyes for me on the field.” 

That consistency and experience have paid off. In her first year as head coach in 2021, a shortened spring season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hurricanes won just one game. This season, they’re 14-4, and the team qualified for both the Western Mass. and the state tournaments.

They’ll play Ludlow in the MIAA Division 2 Preliminary Round on Friday at 4:30 p.m.

Her players, both experienced and new, are grateful to have Mendoker as a coach. It’s nice to have the same person running your team for multiple years in a row, but her players have also commented on what a positive influence she is on them – that Mendoker is enthusiastic, positive and a good communicator, to name a few. 

“We have more people now and more energy. People are more excited about coming than years in the past,” Amherst catcher Maria Konieczny said. “She's really uplifting – if you struggle through something, she'll help you through it all because like she understands like a lot of us are new and most of us haven't played before. She'll always support us through everything.”

Mendoker has also kept up her relationship with her former coach Schmitt, who she calls her mentor. The two of them have talked throughout the season, catching up and going into the X’s and O’s of what it’s like to coach a team. Schmitt has 17 years of experience coaching the ‘Canes, a wealth of knowledge to draw from, and has enjoyed staying in touch with one of her former players. 

“She knows so much about softball, but as far as coaching goes, I do like to mentor new coaches and I felt like she has everything it takes,” Schmitt said. “She has softball knowledge, she’s hard working, she’s reliable, and I knew that she would be really patient and kind to her players regardless of what their skill level is... I think Emma has what it takes to be a constant, and get kids wanting to play for her.”

Mendoker wants to be that constant. She plans on staying in Amherst as long as she’s still in the area, and she’s not just thinking about the high school team – her plans are more big picture. She wants to make Western Mass. a softball destination.

“I definitely am thinking way into the future with this Amherst program, and I'd really like to help build softball back up into the community,” she said. “We're gonna do a camp in July – so we’re going to start with camp, and then hopefully build a travel ball team based in Amherst.

“Coming from New Jersey and moving to Amherst… and coming from Planet Fastpitch as well, which is near Worcester – Western Mass. is very much behind, softball-wise,” Mendoker continued. “And I'd really like to help get it back with eastern and central Mass.” 

Listening to Mendoker talk, you can tell she’s committed to building something in Amherst. The same intensity she once had in the circle is now being redirected in a new way, toward the next generation of softball players. It won’t be easy – Mendoker knows that – but she’s determined to make it a reality.

“I did have to tell her, you have some work to do here to build this up,” Schmitt said. “She suffered through some tough games last season and this season. They’re really coming around, you know, and I’m really proud of her for that.”


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