East Lyme's Judy Deeb: Five wins from history
East Lyme - The subject is her team's participation in a series of winter clinics for elementary school and middle school girls. Judy Deeb's face lights up.
"Each little kid gets a softball and the big kids signed it for them," said Deeb, East Lyme High School's softball coach. "I'm so proud of them. I saw the way the younger kids reacted to them. It was how young boys react to professional players.
"I saw a different side of these kids. What impressed me was how passionate they were, how patient they were, how caring they were. ... I was really pumped up (to start the softball season) this year."
And so the Vikings begin their season today at noon with a game against Ellington at Niantic's Veterans Memorial Field.
It's East Lyme's 41st season, easy to figure because the Vikings have only had one coach. Deeb, who began the program in 1972 - the same year Title IX was enacted, giving women's sports equal funding to men's - is in her 41st season. (She jokes she was 12 when she started.)
Deeb is 528-285 in her career, just five wins shy of becoming the winningest high school softball coach in Connecticut history. Hale-Ray's Lou Milardo retired in 2006 with 533 victories, having passed previous all-time leader Joe Piazza of Southington (519) in 2005.
Five wins from history. That was never a part of the original blueprint when Deeb first started, just after graduating from Southern Connecticut State University.
Now, she's still "pumped up" to start the season.
And she has no plans for retirement, either.
"I was walking through the commons at the high school and a guy who works there, Ed (Waido) stops me. He said, 'My sister-in law asked me if you were still coaching,'" Deeb said last week. "He said, 'Have you read her obituary? If you haven't, she's still coaching.'
"It's like a puzzle. I like puzzles. Sometimes the pieces fit and sometimes they don't. When they do mesh it's the best feeling in the world," Deeb said. "It's a good fulfillment. I'm not obsessed with it; I never will be, I don't think.
"My family's the most important thing. My job is important, too, though. I love it dearly. As long as I'm healthy, I'm staying."
At the beginning of her coaching career, Deeb was, shall we say, somewhat rigid in her principles.
"Very intense, very driven," she said. "Part of it was I never got the opportunity to participate the way these girls did. Part of it was my competitive nature, my competitive spirit. ... During a game, I get so focused, I expect them to be that way."
The latter part hasn't changed much with time. Deeb once benched first baseman Hannah Formica, Class of 2008, for being in the wrong position to cut off a throw from the outfield. Not that her first basemen never missed a cutoff before, but Deeb expected better from Formica.
"She benched me one game when I was a freshman because I didn't clean up the batting cage or whatever. It was awful," said former East Lyme pitcher Brittni Taylor, now Deeb's assistant coach. "But after that I hopped on any piece of equipment that needed to be brought back ... she only does things like that because she knows you know better."
Deeb has softened. She says it's been gradual, perhaps a result of her move to teaching physical education at the town's Lillie B. Hayes Elementary School in 1989. She taught at East Lyme High School prior to that.
"I heard she was a real stickler," East Lyme first baseman Emily Passman said of Deeb's reputation at times preceding her. "I was wondering, 'How am I going to act?' She took me right under her wing. She's got a lot of different sides to her. She can goof around with you. And she can be serious but still make you feel good about yourself."
Really? Goof around?
While some of her former players might find it hard to believe, rumor has it Deeb danced at a recent practice to a song by Beyonce. There was also the time Deeb got locked in the equipment room under the press box at Veterans Field during a practice. Finally, when the police were summoned to bust her out, the players were waiting for her outside with their camera phones. What was the coach supposed to do but laugh?
One recent visitor to an East Lyme practice: Formica. Deeb was touched by the gesture.
"You have to figure her out," Taylor said. "She used to yell at me all the time. But she loves the sport and that's obvious. She loves her players and that's obvious, too."
Beginning from the time Deeb was in junior high school, she wanted to be an astronaut. The fact no U.S. woman would forge her way into space until 1983 really wasn't a concern. Hearing the word "no" perhaps made Deeb even more determined to do whatever she was going to do more thoroughly than anyone else.
Luckily, Deeb coaches in a era in which her players can choose whatever vocation they wish. Among the alumnae of the East Lyme program are an East Lyme police officer (Lindsay Cutillo), a Boston Marathon competitor (Sadie Murallo), a few Ivy League graduates (Liz Walker, Kelli Bartlett and Sara Cushman) and a high school coach who has won her own state championships (Walker, now Waterford coach Liz Sutman.)
"I'm proud of Brittni. I'm proud of Liz. I'm proud of Kim Staehle (who has had several Division I coaching jobs)," Deeb said. "... I love what I'm doing. What more could anyone ask for?"
A Danbury native who still visits her family in that part of the state regularly, Deeb may not have beaten Sally Ride to the space shuttle, but she did blaze her own path in Connecticut high school athletics.
She is a member of the Connecticut High School Coaches' Association Hall of Fame (1995), Connecticut Field Hockey Hall of Fame as an official (2004), Connecticut Basketball Hall of Fame as an official (2005), Connecticut Softball Hall of Fame (2008) and was given the highest recognition by the Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance on April 23, 2006, when she was awarded a Gold Key.
One more highlight: In 1994, the Vikings won 17 straight games on the way to a Class M state championship.
"It's the girls," said Deeb, not usually one for self-reflection. "Every team is different. Every team has different chemistry you have to create and promote. I couldn't tell you who had the most hits. That's all numbers and words on paper.
"It's not measured in wins and losses, it's 'Did I do something to positively affect their lives?' I want to teach them that hard work leads to success in whatever you do. That's all I really care about."
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