Coach, teacher, leader



Larry Flynn

Villanova softball is hosting Seton Hall. It’s one of those days that’s a bit too cold to sit motionless on metal bleachers but perfect weather to play softball. 

During introductions, volunteer assistant coach and professor Jennifer Joyce of Villanova’s Augustine and Culture Seminar Program and Center for Peace and Justice Education stands at the right hand of head coach Maria DiBernardi. Most of the coaches maintain a serious, business-like look, but Joyce beams from ear-to-ear.

Joyce can’t help it. She loves her players, her friendships and her job.

“I’m soft,” she says. “I encourage. I hug.”

Joyce cheers for all her players, but there’s a little extra ‘umph’ when Dana Morris and Shea Palmer are announced. Just yesterday, Morris and Palmer were sitting across from their assistant coach in a classroom. But their coach wasn’t “coach” yesterday. Joyce was their teacher in the Peace and Justice course: “Homeless Chic: U.S. Poverty and Privilege.”

Back to introductions. The last to be announced is Kate Poppe, and Joyce claps as loud as she knows how for her player, for her student, for her friend. Poppe high-fives Joyce and her teammates and heads out to the mound, the same place where her relationship with Joyce began in a private pitching lesson eight years ago. 

“I can remember it,” Joyce says. “Our first lesson was on this mound. Her dad was catching. We were working on her curve.”

The team gets ready to pitch and Joyce returns to the dugout. She leans on the fence and interlocks her fingers together. Her knees are bent slightly, as if kneeling. At this moment, the fence resembles a make-shift pew. Joyce has spent time with these girls in real pews, praying together.

“It’s part of being a Villanovan,” she says. “I go to Mass with them Sunday nights.”

Body. Mind. Spirit. It’s cliché for some, but it’s the essence of Jennifer Joyce and her mark on Villanova softball.

Baseball is as much a part of Joyce as her blonde hair or blue eyes. Her earliest memory is sitting in the left field bleachers in Memorial Stadium in Baltimore with her father. A born and raised Orioles fan, Joyce listened attentively to her father as he explained the intricacies of baseball to his toddler. 

When they didn’t make it to the stadium, father and daughter would sit side-by-side in her screened-in porch listening to the radio together, recreating the game in their imaginations.

“He loved it,” Joyce said. “He was so passionate about baseball that it seeped into me. I became a student of the game through baseball. Then I learned how to play softball.”

Joyce began playing softball when she was nine—which is late—and started fast-pitch at age 12—even later. But, when her father took her to a fastball clinic, Joyce found her place in the sport—cemented to the mound. 

“I liked the role of the pitcher as a leader on the team,” Joyce said. “You get to touch the ball every play and start the action. It suited my personality.”

Joyce’s affinity for pitching grew as she practiced with her father in a hallway in her school, which featured a glass trophy case on the right and a fire exit on the left. Here, she learned pinpoint accuracy and to love playing catch. 

This love turned into an athletic scholarship and a diploma at Villanova, which evolved into a side job as a private pitching instructor while she pursued her education—a masters in English from Villanova and a Ph.D. from Rhode Island. Then Joyce was hired by Villanova as a professor in the fall of 2008, where she began to work with the softball program more closely. Alongside DiBernardi, Joyce ran pitching clinics four times a week at the Pavilion.

It was then that Joyce made a life-long friend in the form of fourteen-year-old Kate Poppe. Joyce helped Poppe evolve from a prospect to a scholarship player at Villanova.

“She saw me pitch really well and knew how to tweak my pitches,” Poppe said. “She converted my raw talent into success on the mound.”

Poppe’s success didn’t come immediately, however. During her first two years at Villanova, Poppe often struggled maintaining control on the mound and staying mentally focused throughout the entire game.

“Pitchers are mental,” Poppe said. “I was crazy freshman and sophomore year and had trouble with my mental game. She really helped me fix that. When I’m freaking out, she knows exactly what to say.”

Adjusting her mental game, with the help of Joyce, Poppe has exceeded expectations on her way to becoming a Villanova softball legend. Poppe’s 938 strikeouts are the most—by over 200—in Villanova softball history. She has pitched more innings than anyone in school history, thrown more complete games—76—than anyone in school history and is fifth, and counting, all-time in career wins.

 “I feel a sense of pride in watching her grow,” Joyce said. “She’s tough as nails, a fierce competitor, a coach’s dream.”

As Poppe’s stardom has grown, so has her relationship with Joyce. The two connect on a cosmic level, as if they are best friends or even sisters.

Take Monday’s game against Seton Hall. 

“When I first saw her, I could tell everything hurt,” Joyce said.

Joyce’s instinct was right. Poppe had just pitched 10 innings against the Pirates the day before.  Poppe had struggled with her curveball and asked Joyce to take a look at what she was doing wrong. 

“I saw one pitch,” Joyce said. “And I knew exactly what to fix.”

Poppe continued to warm up, and the pitch was fixed almost immediately. As the game began, Coach DiBernardi pulled Joyce aside.

“How’s Kate’s curve?” DiBernardi asked. “She was having some trouble with it yesterday.”

But Joyce was ahead of the curve.

“It’s back,” Joyce said. It was all that needed to be said.

Many Villanova softball players decide to connect with Joyce beyond the field by taking one of her classes. Last fall, Joyce taught a Peace and Justice course titled, “Baseball, Justice, and the American Dream” which sounded right up Poppe’s alley. She enrolled and discovered that their relationship was different in the classroom.

“Having her in the classroom was really strange at first,” Poppe said. “Once I called her ‘Jenny’ and she told me to call her ‘Dr. Joyce.’ It was funny.”

Joyce has learned to respect and navigate the boundaries of her relationships with both her students and her athletes. 

“They know their role with me in different settings and situations,” Joyce said. “[Poppe] and I are friends. I know we will always be friends. But when she’s in the classroom, she’s my student. And when she’s on the field, she’s my player.”

Although Joyce interacts with both her students and her players in different ways depending on the setting, she sees the correlations between teaching and coaching. In many ways, to Joyce, they aren’t much different. 

“One of the key components for both roles is seeing the potential in my players and students and supporting and encouraging them to achieve their goals,” Joyce said. “There are times in teaching when it’s important to stay quiet and let the students take over. Same on the field. There are times when a writer might just need a pep talk, and take [Poppe], who just pitched 19 innings in the last two days. Today, she just needed a pep talk.”

Joyce enjoys teaching her players in the classroom in order to get to know these well-rounded individuals or “complete student-athletes” as Athletic Director Mark Jackson likes to say.

“I’m grateful to catch a glimpse of the whole person,” Joyce said. “These athletes aren’t a one-trick pony. They work hard and, when I have them in class, I get to see their insights too.”

But Joyce takes her personal relationships with her students a step farther, nurturing not just the body and the mind, but also the spirit. Beginning this year, Joyce has led retreats alongside Theology professor Ed Hastings and David Walsh, a campus ministry intern, for the softball team twice a year. Here, the players and coaches nourish each other’s spirits, getting to know one another and their faith journeys on a personal level.

Poppe, also born and raised Catholic, has learned a lot from her experiences at the retreats.

“[Joyce] is so open and supporting during them,” she said. “We take time to get to know each other outside the field in a more personal way.”

“My players have seen me on the field, and some have seen me in the classroom, but many haven’t seen me pray and talk about spirituality,” Joyce said. “It has made an impact on our team. If you had seen this team two years ago, you wouldn’t believe we are now on a ten-game win streak.”

Villanova just defeated Seton Hall, 2-1, its 10th win in a row. Morris, one of Joyce’s students and players, has just hit a home run in extra innings. The team mobs Morris as she tags home plate. 

Credit Poppe, whose pitch was corrected by her mentor, for only allowing one run and recording eight strikeouts. It was a masterful performance for a pitcher who had pitched 19 innings in two days. And Poppe is tired, which is why it is a relief to open her arms and fall into a warm embrace from her mentor. 

“You were a rock star today,” Joyce says. 

Joyce can’t help but smile. She can’t help but feel proud of the pitcher, student and faith-filled woman Poppe has become. 

Then Poppe returns the favor.

“I would not be where I’m at without her.”

She pauses, lost for words.

“I love her.”