Niagara Gazette

May 13, 2013

Base Paths: Behind the scenes of a coaching change

By DOUG SMITH
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Just getting to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference softball tournament should have been triumph enough for Niagara University. A few weeks ago there was serious doubt Purple Eagle softball could even finish the regular season, let alone go to the “post.”

While most of the Niagara Frontier focused on basketball’s Joe Mihalich, the softball team was in revolt against its first-ever full-time coach. University officials acted swiftly, putting the coach “on suspension,” leaving three assistants to coach by committee. “A personal matter,” was the explanation. Many campus buildings aren’t stonewalled as well as this.

That’s not fair to Elly Hanover Chan. The total blackout suggests offense bordering on the criminal. It’s not. Here’s what Base Paths has learned through several interviews from different perspectives.

Last May, Al Dirschberger stepped down as head coach. For 22 years he had brought credit to the University. He recruited strongly near and far, especially from northeast New England. There are prize lobsters that didn’t spend as much time in Maine as Al did. He didn’t always win and he wasn’t always right but he had the affection and respect of his players. He and NU fit perfectly.

Trouble was, Al had another job, outside academia. Division I now trends toward full-time coaches, even in non-revenue sports such as softball. Al was offered the post. Financially, it fell short of what he was making elsewhere. So he took an honorable discharge. Within weeks he was assisting at arch-rival Canisius.

Niagara hired Elly Chan of Division II Belmont Abbey. As Elly Hanover, she’d hit .451 for Canisius in the ‘90s, then coached a D’Youville team to its first conference title with barely nine players. Base Paths hailed her return; website postings in late June exploded with enthusiasm.

Niagara played some respectable fallball but already there were rumblings among players about requests made of them. By February it was clear that NU softball had a far more intense emphasis. Not that Al was ever easy-going, but he was far less driven and far more forgiving. Chan called players out in public, sometimes with parents present. The Eagles lost 17-1 to Lipscomb.

This was not, as in the case of some area high schools, just a few, loud parents with playing-time grudges bad-mouthing a coach to administrators. If anything, disaffection for Coach Chan had unified the team; players, with parents’ support, drafted a different sort of “letter of intent,” to quit the team en masse.

NU did not shrug this off, as had some larger D-1 schools in more prominent programs. One administrator, heading out of town on business, took the next flight back, measured the objections and placed Chan on suspension.

At the time, NU had won five games out of 30, four of them by eventual MAAC Pitcher of the Year Jennifer Sansone. Within a week, NU was beating Canisius. Nine consecutive victories followed and while the regular season ended with a series loss to 9-and-40 Maryland-Baltimore, an earlier sweep of Manhattan landed the Eagles smack in the MAAC. And senior Becky Zill, one of the finest ever to wear the Purple, finished her regular-season career with a game-winning homer in her final at-bat, making a winner of weekend pitcher Sydney Smyers. Joy had returned to Monteagle Ridge.

“They should have vetted Chan,” one fan second-guessed, but how? Her record was impeccable, her pedigree perfection. What happened? That’s way above Base Paths’ pay grade. Niagara athletics first erred in fixing something that wasn’t broken, but when trouble arose, it responded.

Doug Smith offers his views on baseball and softball with "Base Paths" every Monday. Contact Doug at pollyndoug@hotmail.com.