Fastpitch Power recently spent time with Cassie Reilly-Boccia, the all-star first baseman for the College World Series Champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide. If you follow college softball at all, you know that Alabama had an incredible year. Their College World Series win was the first ever national championship for the Alabama program and for an SEC (South Eastern Conference) school. ‘Bama ended the season with a 60-8 record and took top honors in all national polls including USA Today/NFCA and ESPN/USA Softball Collegiate. Cassie helped power ‘Bama to the top with a .331 batting average, 48 RBIs and 9 home runs. She hails from Yorktown Heights, NY and upon returning home from her last softball activity with Alabama (instructing at their softball camps) she spent time with us discussing how it all began, how she got to Alabama, how it feels to win the College World Series and what she’s learned from it all.
Alabama’s Cassie Reilly-Boccia talks softball, life and what it’s like winning the Women’s College World Series with Fastpitch Power.
FP: You and your team just had the most incredible season, winning the Women’s College World Series for the first time in school and SEC history. What does that feel like?
Cassie: It is, and probably will always be, the Number One moment of my life! I know I’m young and will have many more “moments” but winning with this team is the biggest rush, the biggest high. I think it hasn’t sunk in completely yet. It’s the best feeling to experience something like this with really good people—my teammates, my coaches, trainers, managers. We were all on the same page with the same goal throughout the season. Then to win this all together was and is just incredible. I still have a goofy smile on my face.
FP: Let’s talk about the final game against Oklahoma with Keilani Rickets on the mound. The game was delayed by rain and did not start until much later that night. It rained on and off throughout the game and Keilani is a formidable pitcher. What were you and your teammates thinking and saying to each other? And did you have a strategy to get past Keilani and the Oklahoma team?
Cassie: Keilani is a tremendous pitcher. She throws hard and from the left side with a ton of movement, which we struggled with in game one against them. But as the game went on we were doing better and better. We made adjustments at the plate. The whole season Coach Murphy (Alabama Head Coach Patrick Murhpy) made us get used to hitting from different areas of the batter’s box so that nothing would feel uncomfortable when we needed to adjust during a game. I think our team’s ability to deal with adversity and persevere through failures helped us as well. Nobody took a bad at bat with them back on to the field in defense or to the next at bat. We were able to learn from it and move on. Something I feel is imperative when facing a pitcher the caliber of Ricketts.
FP: So what was the celebrating like? What didn’t we see on ESPN?
Cassie: On the field we were all just crying and hugging each other and looking for our families in the stands. Right after the game we all headed to an IHOP. We hadn’t eaten since the afternoon and it was so late—about 3 am due to the rain delays. But we were starving and wanted to eat and just enjoy life at the IHOP for a while. We headed back to the hotel at around 4am. When I got back to my room I just did not want to take off my jersey so I did other things to avoid doing so. I cleaned my room and I packed. My parents put a jar in my room that was filled with 100 slips of paper listing “100 reasons to look forward to life after softball.” So I spent 45 minutes reading some of those.
FP: What were some of those reasons?
Cassie: Oh, things like:
No more 6 am weight sessions:
No more conditioning sessions in the Alabama heat;
I can spend more time with my family;
I will have more time and can possibly get a dog;
I can wear more colors, not just crimson and white;
I can have a spring break for the first time in my life.
After reading those, my roommate told me I really should shower. So I took one long, last look at myself in uniform in the mirror, then showered.
By then it was about 6am. Our plane was leaving at 9 am and none of us could sleep. So we took the projector we had been using to study pitchers all week long and watched a repeat of the whole final game.
After that, we ate breakfast and boarded the plane—we were fortunate enough to have a private plane! It’s great being part of a school that is so supportive of athletics. We took our trophy and tucked it into its own seat and covered it with blankets.
FP: What was it like when you got back to Tuscaloosa, AL?
Cassie: When we landed, Coach Murphy told all the seniors to exit first with the trophy. There were hundreds of people waiting for us at the airport and they were loudly playing the song “Sweet Home Alabama” as we came off the plane. It was a very special moment.
When we finally made it back to campus we had a team meeting. It was the first time we met as a team after the final win. We were too busy celebrating to meet before then. None of us had had any sleep but we were all so happy and emotional. The most beautiful quote and sentiment from that meeting came from my teammate Jazlyn Lunceford. Jaz is from the Alabama area and it was her dream from a very young age to play for the Alabama softball team. She told Coach Murphy, “You have the coolest job because you get to make other people’s dreams come true.” Coach Murphy responded, “ No, you’ve all made my dream come true.”
The next day my parents and I drove 17 hours straight back to New York. I spent an amazing 10 days back home with my family then returned to Alabama to help at the softball camps.
FP: During all your years at Alabama the team came very close, but never got the big win, being knocked out twice by Florida and once by Hawaii. What do you think was different about this year’s team? What do you think you had that enabled you to “finish it” as ‘Bama fans like to say?
Cassie: This year, a lot of things fell into place. We were prepared physically. We were prepared mentally. We worked hard all year. Every one of us, coaches, trainers, managers and all 20 players were all committed to the same goal of winning. We all believed we could do it. There were several seniors on the team, including myself. We had all struggled through the adversity and disappointment of losing each of the three years before and I think that made us mentally tougher and ready for this year.
FP: It also seemed like your team had both an intensity to play hard and what I call a relaxed camaraderie. You seem to enjoy each other.
Cassie: Yes we did. It was a unique situation. There were 20 players on the team and there were no issues among any of us. We supported and helped each other all season. And I know now that we will be a Team for Life. We will always be the 2012 team that won the college world series. Hopefully there will be lots of reunions.
FP: So let’s go back to the beginning. Let’s talk about how you began your softball career. When and how did it all start?
Cassie: It started with my grandfather. He’s loved and played softball (men’s slow pitch) his whole life. (He still plays in an over 60 league). When I was two years old he would have me chasing a ball hanging from a string on a stick with a whiffle ball bat. And I liked it. It took.
After that it was Little League then travel ball. I started playing for the Yorktown Huskies Travel Team. As a freshman in high school I watched the Women’s College World Series on TV and said to myself, “I’d like to do that.” I talked with my parents and we began to find ways to get it done.
I spent one fall season with the Virginia Shamrocks 14U team and then I moved to the New Jersey Inferno Gold team the next year.
During my first year with the Inferno I was terrible! I struck out all the time. I just could not handle the gold level pitchers and I was so nervous all the time. After the season I worked hard to improve my skills and the next year everything just clicked.
FP: What was your recruiting process like? How did you decide on Alabama?
Cassie: Before being recruited by Alabama, I was sure that I would just go to a small, tiny college not far from home—within a two hour drive. That was my intention.
During the Fall of my junior year, as I was playing in a tournament in Texas, I was noticed by Coach Ali (Alabama Associate Head Coach, Alyson Habetz). She talked to me and said these words, “We’d really like you to become part of the Alabama Family.” No one else had put it quite that way—become part of a family—and I really liked that.
So I visited Alabama and fell in love with it all. I loved the school, the academics, the team, the community. I was always told “pick a school you can love even if softball went away.” And Alabama had that for me. It just felt right. It was the best decision I’ve ever made and I’m so grateful for it.
FP: Was your transition to college difficult?
Cassie: Actually it was easy. The school, the community, the athletic department, the team all helped make it easy. The school and community are very supportive of the athletes, I’ve never see anything like it. The people at Alabama are some of the best people I’ve ever met and they’ve had a tremendous impact on my life.
Everyone at Alabama, from athletic directors and professors to coaches, believes it is their job to “build better people, not just athletes. They frequently told us, “We want to help people be better in life, not just on the field.” And they really do this. We heard it often. They taught us so many things. For example, Coach Murphy even taught us the proper way to shake hands during an interview. They just made me feel so comfortable and I was never homesick. And “southern hospitality” definitely exists. My local teammates took me into their homes many times.
FP: What did it feel like when you first walked onto the campus and what was the first day like?
Cassie: It was so beautiful. I never saw a stadium like that with grass so green. I couldn’t believe I was there sharing a team with people I just watched on ESPN. My eyes were wide but I really felt like I belonged there.
My senior teammates helped the freshmen get acclimated by showing us everything we needed to know from classes to softball. We had a softball meeting and started our conditioning tests and workouts. It was August in Alabama and it was 98 degrees with 90 plus humidity. It was HOT! And we were doing sprints and “half gassers” (sprints across the width of a football field 18 times within a set time frame).
FP: Was it hard working out in such heat?
Cassie: It was hard but everyone kept telling us “It’s gonna be worth it.” And it was. We did this type of conditioning several times a week. And I’m thankful for it because it prepared us to play in Oklahoma City where the temperatures and humidity are the same. I’m in the best shape—better than I have ever been.
FP: Describe a typical day.
Cassie: During the fall, workouts began at 6 am (sometimes 5:30 because you never wanted to be late) on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and ran until 7:30am. Conditioning workouts were on Tuesdays and Thursdays for 45min at 4pm. These workouts varied. Tuesday’s would usually be conditioning days to get us in shape, like 240 yard turnovers, yo-yo’s, 300 yard shuttles, etc. Thursday’s would focus on quick, explosive agility like 5-10-5′s, double/single leg jumps, and “paperclips.” Our conditioning tests were “half-gassers.” For these we would run the width of a football field (50 yards) down and back in under 20 seconds. We would have a one minute break between each sprint. We’d have to run 18 times and 15 of them had to be within the 20 second mark.
Coach Murphy decides, with our strength coach, Michelle Diltz, on the times and a day of workouts and then Michelle dictates exactly what we do. She decides the weights and reps depending on what she wants to work on that day/week. For example, Coach Murphy liked to set certain goals. One year he set a goal to lead the conference in stolen bases and home runs. He communicated that to our trainer and she came up with workout programs for speed and power.
After the morning workouts we would go to “rehab”—sit in a cold tub or get any other treatment we might need.
Next came breakfast. Because Alabama is a very sports oriented school with a very large, profitable football program, we had the benefit of having a full-time nutritionist at our disposal. She would have breakfast bars, smoothies, fruit and the like available for us. It was nice. You feel a little like a rock star!
Next, off to classes for three to four hours each day, followed by lunch. Then softball practice. Practice would last 3 hours if we lifted weights in the morning; 4 hours if we did not.
After practice the sport nutritionist would have healthy snacks for us again. Then, homework and bed.
In season practices are fewer and shorter because we travel so much and play lots of games, which now take place on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in the SEC. But we focus on having shorter but higher quality practices then…for example, making sure we take real quality cuts during batting practice.
FP: Was it hard balancing softball with school work?
Cassie: From day one the coaches told us “don’t let your sport be an excuse for not doing your best in your classes.” They did not like hearing “well I got a low grade because I spend so much time playing a sport.” So we had to learn to really manage our time well. Very often you would find us reading while we were soaking in the cold tub!
We also had tons of tutors available to help us and the teachers are very flexible and helpful. They could reschedule labs or tests, or provide make-ups if we ever needed it.
We also had great academic advisors who would help us map out our schedules so our “heavy” classes—those with labs and such—were in the Fall and we could carry a lighter load in season.
FP: What were practices like?
Cassie: Coach Murphy likes to make practices 10 times harder than any game might be so we are prepared for anything. For example, at times he would have us on the field with our backs to the infield. He would play very loud music to make it more chaotic. Runners would be on base and then he would hit to us. We’d have to find the ball, find the runner, make the play and so on.
He pushed us hard but always seemed to know where the line was. He knew how far to push us and when to let us have a day off. Many times he told us “I know you may not be at 100% today. Maybe your are at 50% because your are tired. But if you give me ALL of that 50%, that’s what matters. If you can get better on a day like today you will always get better and will be prepared.”
FP: What was it like playing for Coach Murphy?
Cassie: He is one of the best people I will have ever had in my life. He believes that EVERYONE brings something intangible to a team. If you are not on the field, then you are in the dugout, picking up the others team’s signs, cheering, contributing however you can.
Coach Murphy believes everyone plays a part in the success of a team. The first thing he told us as freshmen was, “the sooner you realize that it’s not all about you, the better off you will be.” He really drives this feeling. When someone hits a home run, we all celebrate. He gives credit to everyone and that attitude trickles down…from him to assistant coaches, to trainers, to the seniors who then trickle it down to the juniors, sophomores and freshmen. Our team had lots of great leaders on it this year. When we won the World Series we all felt like champions. Jackie Traina’s ring was no bigger than anyone else’s.
FP: What was the hardest thing or things you had to deal with during your years at Alabama?
Cassie: Some of the hardest things were being so far away from my family and missing family events and gatherings; dealing with the huge disappointments during those years we came so close to the goal of winning the World Series but were knocked out.
But the hardest time was during those three days when Coach Murphy announced he was leaving to coach at LSU. That was hard. Everything was so up in the air. I thought to myself, “One of the best people I will ever meet will not be in my life anymore.” We had to work with compliance officers to see what would happen next…would we lose scholarships? Where would we play? Who would be the next coach? I was so happy and grateful when he changed his mind and stayed at Alabama.
FP: How about graduation, were you able to attend or were you playing?
Cassie: I was scheduled to graduate during the weekend we played Florida for the regular season SEC championship. I wasn’t able to walk due to game time but that was fine; I had been expecting to be on the road and not be able to walk anyway. We had a little cookie cake at the field for graduation and then my mom took me around campus in a cap and gown and took pictures a couple of weeks later. Other than that I ordered my diploma and am very proud of being able to graduate from such a great university.
FP: So what have you learned from these last four years at Alabama?
Cassie: I’m so fortunate in that at the age of 22, I’ve been able to follow my passion—softball—and experience and share that same passion with 19 other people. But my most important lesson from these last four years is that it’s not all about me. The more you can do to help other people, the more you will get out of life.
FP: What’s next for Cassie Reilly-Boccia?
Cassie: I’m still trying to get used to life without softball. But I’m looking forward to my next step. I’m going to graduate school at the University of Northern Iowa for a master’s degree in exercise science. I’m particularly excited about a new program they have there that focuses on the biomechanics of the female athlete and softball players in particular. It’s a perfect fit for me.
FP: What would you tell a young softball player today who would like to follow in your footsteps and be recruited to play in college?
Cassie: It’s a little different today. I verbally committed to Alabama in May of my junior year in high school. Now they seem to be doing it at a younger and younger age. But here is my advice:
1. Get your name out there as best you can.
2. Players should email coaches, NOT their parents. Let coaches know who you are.
3. Play on a high level travel team. But if you cannot afford to do so then pick 3 or 4 really good college camps a year and go to them.
My number one suggestion to young players is to focus on what you can control. You can control your attitude, you can control your effort, and you can control your hustle. It’s not just about hitting lots of home runs, or flawless fielding, or lots strikeouts. Coaches know talent alone is not enough. Playing in college is not easy and how you handle adversity is a big part of it. If you are not performing well, then work on it and try again. That’s what separates players who make it from those that don’t. Coaches always want to know, “How much better can you get.”
Thank you Cassie for a great interview!