- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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CHICAGO -- Imagine Tim Duncan signing on as a full-time assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh to impart some wisdom to the post players, or LaDainian Tomlinson joining the coaching staff at West Virginia to tutor the running backs.
That's exactly the kind of coup Big East softball power DePaul scored last week when it announced Cat Osterman had joined coach Eugene Lenti's staff as a full-time assistant, expected to serve as the team's pitching coach. This isn't a coach bringing in a star to deliver a motivational speech or hang around training for a couple of days in front of awestruck kids; DePaul's pitchers will get to learn the tricks of the trade on a daily basis from someone many consider to be the best pitcher in the world.
No wonder fall ball, most often viewed as part of the price players have to pay for the chance to play for real in the spring, is suddenly a big deal in Chicago.
"They're all excited about Cat," Lenti said of his pitchers. "When we told them Cat was going to be our pitching coach, they were all like, 'Are you kidding me? Are you serious?' So they're excited about working with her, and who wouldn't be, really?"
Even with a field wedged a few miles from downtown Chicago's skyscraper-dominated Loop, where subway tracks loom over the outfield wall and winter ensures the season begins with a two-month road trip, DePaul was already a program with a pedigree worthy of someone like Osterman. Until the sport's recent rapid growth stretched its competitive borders, Lenti's program was one of the few cold-weather outposts that could be counted on to contend each season. The Blue Demons have reached the Women's College World Series four times, most recently last season, their second trip in three years.
So when Lenti threw his hat in the ring upon learning that Osterman, who is pitching professionally in nearby Rockford this summer and has a grandmother living in the Chicago area and an uncle who works at DePaul, was interested in pursuing a coaching career after trying her hand at broadcasting last season, the reception was warm.
"Just being away from Texas this summer and being up here, I just was enjoying myself, being away," Osterman said. "I've never really gotten outside of Texas a whole lot, other than to play ball, and I just kind of wanted a change of pace.
"I just thought it would be nice to have somewhere new to be. And I want to coach, and I've always respected Eug as a coach. He recruited me, so I knew his philosophies and his program, and so I just thought it would be a great steppingstone."
The original plan was to have Osterman serve as a volunteer coach for the Blue Demons this season while she spent a fair bit of time away from the program preparing for next year's Olympics in Beijing. But when pitching coach Lindsay Chouinard accepted the head coaching position at Northern Illinois, Lenti approached the new girl with the thought of speeding up the timetable and making her a full-time assistant right away.
"My first reaction was, 'You do understand I'm hopefully not going to be here the next year?'" Osterman recalled with a laugh. "I just wanted to make sure he knew, and he's obviously very understanding of national team commitments and, by far, wants me to be on the Olympic team and be gone. But I just wanted to make sure he knew what our schedule was like."
Undeterred by the prospect of having a part-time resident as a full-time coach -- he says they're already working on practice plans the pitchers can follow for the times their new coach is away with the national team -- Lenti brought her aboard. Which is how Osterman, one of the most recognizable faces in women's sports, found herself in unfamiliar territory last week in downtown Chicago, sitting through the kind of fluorescently lit orientation for new hires more commonly associated with those logging hours in cube farms.
"It felt like I was in class again," Osterman said, laughing. "It was lecture after lecture of PowerPoint slides. It was kind of funny; I texted one of my friends and was like, 'I don't know a lick about insurance, so I really don't understand what they're telling me here.' And they're like, 'Just know that you get it and it's good.'"
Her insurance and 401(k) issues aside, Osterman isn't treating this like a flight of fancy. She already has purchased a condo near campus and will begin working toward her master's at DePaul in something related to sports psychology once the Olympics are over. Even in discussing a hectic short-term future that will involve a lot of trips to and from O'Hare, she talks excitedly of how she'll start "staking her claim" to the pitchers this fall.
Cat could have probably gone anywhere and become a coach. And the fact that she chose DePaul, I think says a lot about where our program's at. We definitely think it's going to have an impact on the program because I think she'll do a great job developing, not only physically but even more so mentally, the profile of our pitchers here at DePaul.
"I think the most important thing is them understanding spin, and what you can really get from correct spin and not necessarily just flinging it up there at an angle," Osterman said. "But I think the biggest thing that Eugene likes in me, and that I know I can pass on to them, is the mental part of the game. How you can stay out there, and your team may not be scoring runs, but how you can stay out there and look like you're controlling the game.
"It's something I want to be able to impress upon them, especially since I can say I just did it. It's not like I played back in the day; I just finished playing."
One of the people listening most attentively to Osterman will be sophomore Becca Heteniak. After a successful debut while sharing the pitching load with Tracie Adix, who has since graduated, Heteniak will be expected to lead the way for a staff that also includes Cal transfer Lauren Frankiewicz and several freshman prospects.
"She just has a great game face, great maturity, and she's one of the few pitchers out there that can throw up and throw down," Lenti said of Heteniak. "And one thing she can definitely learn from Cat is a changeup, and if Becca learns a changeup from Cat, look out, I think she'll be one of the best pitchers in the country."
Heteniak showed impressive composure in her first taste of the Women's College World Series, and from the sound of things, she'll need to do the same to keep up around her new coach.
"It's the same thing I had to go through," Osterman said of Lenti's plans for Heteniak's changeup. "I lived without a changeup for so long, and I still live without it, but you have one just to be able to show. And for her to understand that, and just kind of get something that we can get by and just kind of work on, that will be our first project."
The second project, no matter how well Heteniak fares, might well be attracting her eventual successor. Adding an elite pitcher to a flawed roster can cover a lot of weaknesses at the college level, and adding an elite pitcher to an already good roster can catapult a team from mere postseason hopeful to instant championship contender. And even as Osterman adjusts to her new job as mentor, she's guaranteed to be an immediate hit on the recruiting trail for a program that already can sell quality academics and the allure of big-city life for those willing to put up with the winter wind chills.
"I think it definitely gives us a lot more name recognition," Lenti said. "I mean, Cat could have probably gone anywhere and become a coach. And the fact that she chose DePaul, I think says a lot about where our program's at. We definitely think it's going to have an impact on the program because I think she'll do a great job developing, not only physically but even more so mentally, the profile of our pitchers here at DePaul.
"And she'll also, from a recruiting point of view, be able to attract more pitchers and better players to DePaul."
You get the feeling Lenti won't even mind being the second most recognizable member of his own coaching staff.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.