Tastes of the East Coast are badly missed.
If it were up to Erin Van Nostrand, her perfect world would consist of New York-style pizza, lounging on warm New England beaches and taking in a slew of Boston Red Sox baseball games.
But it is West, at Pacific Lutheran University, where Van Nostrand has been treated to another thrill of a lifetime.
All talk in NCAA Division III fastpitch entering this season focused on Linfield College, of McMinnville, Ore. – and rightfully so since the Wildcats won the national title in 2011.
But last month, it was the fifth-ranked Lutes who wrapped up the Northwest Conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA championships by defeating the No. 1 Wildcats, 3-0, in the conference tournament title game.
Gone will be the long-standing national-tournament drought for the Lutes, who went to five consecutive NCAA regionals from 1999-2003. They have not been there since.
And for Van Nostrand, once a star shortstop at Keene State College in New Hampshire? It will be her first NCAA appearance as a head coach.
In her typical snarky, forthcoming tone, Van Nostrand expressed the relief of advancing this far after being left out of the NCAA tournament a season ago despite a 31-13 record.
“The analogy I have used is that we were the girl who was dressed up for the prom, and got eggs thrown at her on the porch. That was us,” Van Nostrand said. “This year, we decided to crash the party regardless if we were invited.”
If you detect a hint of brashness with Van Nostrand, it is certainly a prominent trait. She grew up in New York. Her father, Greg, had a stint in professional baseball as a pitcher. She spent more than a few days at old Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium.
Yet, she pursued basketball – and went to Keene State, an NCAA Division III school, as a shooting guard in 1995. When that did not work out, she tried out for the softball team, coached by Dr. Charlie Beach.
“She’s flamboyant, outgoing and not afraid to state things the way they are,” Beach said.
And she was a quick study.
Beach’s academic expertise is in kinesiology – the study of human movement. He has not only taught the subject in class, but coached it on the softball field as well.
Many of Van Nostrand’s unconventional practice techniques are from tips she picked up from Beach.
“The whole (field) fascinates me, about how a human body can create a motor pattern instantaneously after it has never done that activity before in its life,” Van Nostrand said.
She pointed to the examples of how a person swerves driving a car, or when a tennis player tries a desperation shot between his or her legs on a rally.
“Your body just automatically allows you to do it,” Van Nostrand said. “It sees and reacts.”
That is why Van Nostrand’s teams do not practice hitting against pitching machines. She would rather her players simulate a reaction drill to a tennis ball, not knowing which way it will bounce as it approaches them.
“We want them to respond to variables all the time,” Van Nostrand said.
While atypical, the approach has worked for Van Nostrand wherever she has coached, rebuilding a winless Freeport (N.Y.) High team into a league champion in 2004, then going on to post four consecutive winning seasons at Pine Manor College (Mass.), an all-women NCAA Division III university.
After Rick Noren resigned as PLU coach in 2008, Beach alerted his former player to the position. It was a big move, Van Nostrand said, but one she said she was ready for.
And so was Lutes athletic director Laurie Turner, who hired her.
“It has been a transition for PLU moving from NAIA to Division III.” Turner said. “The whole landscape for athletics and academics has changed. We have to be much more aggressive in recruiting.”
Once Van Nostrand came on board, she hired Greg Seeley, a former University of Washington football player who was an experienced club softball coach around Seattle. Seeley is the Lutes’ hitting coach.
Early on, the two developed a distinct recruiting philosophy, finding good athletes with quick feet and hands. And that opened the door to one of PLU’s richest recruiting areas – Hawaii.
Yet, despite winning 41 games in her first two seasons at PLU, Van Nostrand endured off-the-field struggles. They mainly stemmed from personality clashes between the coach and a few players.
“What she brought was high standards she was not willing to compromise,” Seeley said. “She is intense. Some players respond to that, and others do not.”
Van Nostrand realized she had to give and take, too. She admits she has “mellowed a lot” with her team. She also said she has found a better balance being in Washington between work and her personal life. In fact, she is getting married at the end of the month.
“My players generally like my passion and enthusiasm,” Van Nostrand said. “But (the last couple of years), it has been about teaching them to find their inner passion instead of me imposing mine on them.”
Now the program is humming along: The Lutes have won 37 games, posting back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time since 2003. They beat Linfield in four out of seven meetings this season. They are the West Region’s No. 2 seed behind Tyler University of Texas.
Today, they find out who they play in the NCAA tournament.
“Getting to this point
means a lot,” Van Nostrand said. “But to go with these girls after everything that has happened, it means even more.” Todd Milles: 253-597-8442