April 1, 2018
WCU President Chris Fiorentino shadowed WCU softball coach Diane Lokey at a recent practice and game.
At first glance, WCU softball coach Diane Lokey appears to be all business, all the time. Striding onto the softball field the Monday after spring break, she gives a quick greeting to a player then starts reviewing the Academic Book. On a weekly basis, every team member must update "The Book" with current grades and upcoming exam dates and project deadlines. While Lokey's eyes are inscrutable behind dark shades, the frown that flits across her face tells you she'll be having a conversation with someone later. The softball team's overall GPA stands at 3.67 and she's not going to let that drop.
After all, this isn't about an isolated grade; this impacts the Purple Promise. Every member of the team must adhere to the Purple Promise, which dictates standards relating to discipline, integrity, respect and teamwork. Right there in bold, in the top right corner of the Purple Promise it states: Do your part to work towards our team goal of 3.4.
This is a coach who is determined to see her players win, on the field and in the classroom. Lokey achieved her 500th career game victory the week before this practice, during the team's annual spring training in Florida. She led WCU to its first ever PSAC Eastern Division title in 2010, and for the past four straight years the Golden Rams has returned to earn that title. Four years ago, the team reached the NCAA Super Regionals for the first time in school history. As a result, Lokey and her coaching staff were lauded NFCA Atlantic Region coaching staff of the year. On top of all that, WCU won its first PSAC Championship title last spring.
Yet Lokey doesn't believe in winning at all costs. Her brisk manner belies a deep concern for her players' well-being in all aspects of life. Case in point – she mandates that the team meets bimonthly with Dr. Rachel Daltry, a Counseling Center psychologist who specializes in sports psychology. She also encourages players to meet 1-1 with a counselor should they feel the need. Team sessions focus on stress management, improving communication and conflict resolution. WCU therapy dog Mr. Muddy Puddles frequently joins in the sessions, too.
In fact, Lokey's sole complaint about this year's team is that "they aren't having enough fun." "I think at times they're too intense for their own good," she says. "Being out on the field should be the best part of their day. Softball should be fun."
That's why Lokey encouraged her players to create The Herd two seasons ago. The Herd is group of players who keep the bench lively by singing, dancing, riding stick ponies, and otherwise raucously supporting their teammates on the field. In recent decades, such a dugout culture of high jinx and downright goofiness has proliferated in collegiate softball, but it took Lokey's push to make it happen here.
"My first year, Coach had us read Finished It, by a player who was on the Alabama team when they won the 2012 National Championship," says Holly Pachella, a junior majoring in elementary education and special education. "The book talks about the importance of Alabama's Wolfpack keeping the bench engaged in the game, and keeping the energy up for the players on the field. Since we're the Rams, naturally, we created The Herd."
"My teammates on the field are going to play looser when The Herd is helping everyone laugh and have fun," says Pachella. "I'm a catcher but, hey, I'm on the bench a lot. Coach has helped me buy into my role; I may not be a leader on the field, but I can be a leader in the dugout."
"I want to be a kindergarten teacher," adds Pachella. "I know the lessons I've learned from Coach about selflessness and working as a team are going to help me be successful in the classroom."
Coach Diane Lokey, Assistant Coach "Lama" Altenburger and President Chris Fiorentino at the spring home opener on March 27.
I couldn't have picked a better day to shadow Coach Lokey at practice – the sun shone brightly and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. As the afternoon progressed, Lokey's demeanor relaxed; she cracked a joke with a player and casually surveyed the action on the field. When I expressed concern that my presence was a distraction, Lokey shrugged it off. "The girls are exhausted when we come back from spring training. They need to relax and have an easy practice today."
Pachella and every player I talked to were quick to praise Coach Lokey's breadth and knowledge of the game. She's been WCU's softball coach since 2003 and previously coached at Elizabethtown College and Warwick High School. She also knows the sport well as a player. Lokey has been honored as a Class A Amateur Softball Association Nationals All-American and has served as an ASA guest clinician.
Lokey and assistant coach Laura "Lama" Altenburger breathe, eat and sleep softball during the season. And since the softball season consists of 54 games, stretching from early fall to late spring — the longest season in collegiate athletics — that pretty much means that softball is all the duo think about, all the time. Things don't slow down measurably in the short off-season. "Summer means camps," points out Altenburger. "And fundraising and scouting," adds Lokey.
Their shared office on South Campus is cluttered with everything from spray sheets to cans of Pepsi. The latter keeps Lokey going from early morning till late at night, and the former is a data analytics application that helps her grade the in-game performance of her own players, as well as that of competitors. The day I met with Lokey and Altenburger, they were reviewing spray sheets for a team they were scheduled to play a few days later.
Lokey is constantly refining her coaching strategy and techniques, and spray sheets are a recent addition to her arsenal of tools. "We didn't have spray sheets when I played on the team," notes Altenburger, who was all-conference infielder for the Golden Rams. After graduating last spring, Altenburger became the part-time coach, and in August was named the team's first full-time assistant coach.
"I'm into Dunkin Donuts' iced coffee not Pepsi," says Altenburger, talking about what fuels her long days by Lokey's side. But in virtually every other respect, it's clear that Altenburger is modeling herself after the coach she so admired as a player. "Diane's got the know-how and the experience to bring out the best in her players," says Altenburger.
Interim Director of Athletics Terry Beattie talks about Diane Lokey possessing "high softball IQ" and it's true that she has that in spades. But he knows that her real strength as WCU's softball coach goes far beyond that:
"Diane recognizes the importance of academic success, leadership, team-building and personal development," says Beattie. "The team's core values and her expectations that her student-athletes embrace them is the foundation for their success. Diane embodies what it means to be a Golden Ram."
Check out my experience coaching the team at practice, then cheering them in their home opener, in the video at the top.