UMass assistant coach brings generations of experience
Jessica Merchant was a former All-American and WCWS champion at Michigan. Now the former all-star is bringing generations of experience to Massachusetts.
AMHERST, Mass. -- Little does University of Massachusetts freshman shortstop Whitney Williams know that the voice she hears in her head on the field, in class and in her sleep is the voice of time itself, etching yet another "begat" into the game's history.
"She's always telling me to come through the ball," Williams said. "That's my big thing I have to do, just come through the ball, because I sit back on the ball and I wait for it. I just have to come through it. That's what she tells me every game and every practice."
And here, as if realizing herself exactly the degree to which Merchant's voice is seared in her mind, she verified the point.
"I hear that a lot."
Like any good coach, Merchant hopes the message does haunt Williams' dreams, echoing in her mind until it's understood, or at least until the sheer desire to never hear it again sparks a Pavlovian response that gets her feet moving in the direction of the approaching ground ball.
"She should here that in her sleep," Merchant said, laughing. "She needs to keep coming to get the ball. 'Come get it, come get it.' I tell her that probably 500 times a day."
Just two years ago, Merchant was on the other side of the equation. A four-year starter at shortstop and one of the best players in Michigan history, it was Merchant who settled under a UCLA pop-up to record the final out of the 2005 Women's College World Series. With the win, the native of Wayland, Mich., helped the Wolverines become the first program from east of the Mississippi River to win a national championship.
Her success on the field meant she was one of the lucky few who got to keep playing past college, debuting as a professional with the New England Riptide of the National Pro Fastpitch circuit in 2005 and earning league offensive player-of-the-year honors with the Connecticut Brakettes last summer. But salaries in the NPF wouldn't even cover the rims on the luxury rides her male counterparts in the NFL and NBA buy with their signing bonuses, and extending her playing days was more of a reward than a career move.
So at an age when most athletes are still years away from their prime, and even as she pursues a spot on the national team heading to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, Merchant already has embarked on a career in coaching that will allow her to stay in the game.
"I couldn't ever imagine my life without softball, so from early on, I knew I wanted to coach," Merchant said. "And I just loved everything about Michigan and everything about playing softball there and I knew that's what I wanted to do."
It wasn't the first time a Michigan shortstop had come to such a realization. Years before she tutored Merchant as Michigan coach Carol Hutchins' top deputy, associate coach Bonnie Tholl patrolled the infield for Hutchins, herself a former championship winning shortstop at Michigan State. Tholl was a four-year starter and the only player in league history to earn first team All-Big Ten honors four times (1988-91). Even before she arrived in Ann Arbor, Tholl knew playing would be only a part of her relationship with the game.
"I even knew when I was in high school; I knew that I wanted to coach at the college level," Tholl said. "And I know that's pretty unusual for someone in high school to know what they want to do so early, especially coach at the college level not even being in college yet. But it was just the atmosphere and the excitement and, I guess, the competitive nature of the position that you wanted to remain in college athletics in that capacity."
After graduating from Michigan, Tholl moved on to serve as a graduate assistant at Indiana for two seasons before returning to Ann Arbor in 1994 and joining Hutchins' staff. She was promoted to associate head coach before the 2003 season, the first time an assistant held that title at Michigan, and along with assistant coach Jennifer Brundage, the trio of coaches were named the top staff in the country after the 2005 season.
All of which gave Tholl a distinct sense of déjà vu when Merchant appeared.
"You spend so much time recruiting these kids and you get to know what some of their passions are," Tholl said. "And Jess, she grew up around a ball field, she grew up around a basketball court, so this was someone you felt had the qualities and the leadership skills that she'd want to stay in the sport and give back. Sport has been a big part of her life. So it was quite obvious early on in her career that she was going to be a coach in some capacity at some level."
That capacity was as a volunteer assistant at Michigan last season, but when Massachusetts coach Elaine Sortino realized she would have an opening on her staff this season, she got in touch with longtime friend Hutchins. Assured Merchant was serious about the coaching route, Sortino met with her over breakfast when both teams were in Georgia last year for the NFCA Leadoff Classic.
For someone who had so recently been a prized recruit listening to coaches pitch their programs, the tables had turned, as breakfast became something of a job interview.
Needless to say, she aced the interview and got the gig in Amherst, but coming in to a new environment as a full-time coach, instead of volunteer assistant hanging around a roster of her friends at Michigan, proved to be a dramatic change for someone barely two years older than some of the current Minutewomen.
"It's completely different," Merchant said. "To play with them and then coach them is a completely different entity than to come in as a coach right from the beginning. At Michigan, they're my friends. I won a national championship with most of those girls. I hung out with them on and off the field, so it was just different, as opposed to here, now they're the players and I'm the coach, and that's just the breakdown."
On the surface, Merchant seems at ease with the role. She acts like any assistant coach, offering encouragement from the dugout or her spot in first-base coaching box. There is clearly a line of authority between her and the players, but she's comfortable enough to share a laugh with junior Lauren Proctor at first base after the previous hitter, Stacy Cullington, tried to take first base on ball three before erasing her embarrassment by hitting a grand slam on the subsequent pitch in the Atlantic 10 championship game.
But making a transition that involves simultaneously having total control of the big picture and absolutely no control over the small moments of which that picture is composed isn't easy.
"It definitely takes time to learn how to be a coach," Tholl said. "I think the biggest thing that not only Jessie but some of our former players that have gone on to have coaching careers have said to us is how emotionally drained they are at the end of the day. & One, as a player, you have the physical part of it, the physical aspect where you can make a difference physically in the game. And two, as a coach, you are focused in on every single pitch, whether your team is on offense or defense. I'm not sure that occurs as a player every single pitch, every single moment of the game.
"That's the one thing Jessie said to me is, 'Wow, it's really exhausting.'"
The results speak for themselves. Second baseman Cullington has emerged as the team's most valuable hitter, showing the same kind of power Merchant showed in the middle infield at Michigan. Williams is hitting .300 in her first season, while first baseman Amanda Morin is hitting .307 and third baseman Whitney Mollica is hitting .294.
Just as importantly for a Massachusetts team that has won 26 games in a row entering a regional that includes No. 3 Oklahoma, Long Island and Colgate, the infield has gone from a defensive liability to a group capable of helping out ace Brandice Balschmiter. The Minutewomen have 69 errors and a .954 fielding percentage in 50 games this season but have committed just 10 errors in their last 12 games.
"I think she's helped a lot of our game, not just the freshman shortstop," Sortino said. "I think she's done a great job with our infield. She's a very very calm, steady force with them. I think she's a good teacher. She's got great glove work and she's a great role model. She doesn't say much, but she says good things. And everything is sort of like right on. So I just think she's a great influence."
It turns out that while the voice echoing in Williams' head sounds like Merchant, the words are much older. They came down through generations of coaches, passed on most recently from Tholl to Merchant, setting up not only success on the field but planting the seed for the generation of coaches to follow.
"She probably has the best feet I've ever seen," Merchant said of Tholl. "She had a tremendous impact on me, as far as how to play defense with your feet. That was pounded into our heads every single day. That's something I try and take with me -- she prides herself on defense and I try to do the same."
So even though she probably doesn't realize it, the voice that Williams hears with such frequency has a lot more experience hidden in it than the young woman from whom it emanates. And the total package is already having an impact.
"I really look up to her, because she was on Michigan, she went to the World Series, she's done all that," Williams said. "She has a lot to offer me, and she's really helped me a lot. She tells me what I need to do and what I'm doing wrong and helps me to get better."
A World Series hero just two years ago, Merchant knows she's gone from All-American to just another assistant climbing the ladder. But she's committed to learning a new craft and already has her sights set on reaching the top of her new profession.
"I absolutely want to stay in coaching," Merchant said. "And I can't wait to be the boss. I've got a lot to learn, and I'm learning from one of the absolute greatest in the game right now. So I couldn't ask for a better place to start, I couldn't ask for a better place to be just starting my career. But down the road, absolutely, I want to be the boss."
Whether it's Williams, Cullington or a player years down the road, there will come a time when one of Merchant's assistants says exactly the same thing.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.