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Michelle Harrison Lady LightningIn the fall of 2014 a new club was formed by former Minnesota Gopher Michelle Harrison based out of Eagan, MN named the Lady Lightning Gold Midwest. They are one of five national level teams for the Lady Lightning Gold organization, which was founded by John Corn in 2000 and is based out of North Carolina. The team was formed in the fall with three open tryouts, although some players were offered spots due to qualification based on their past performances.

The tryout was done in the least subjective manner possible as Harrison points out “for tryouts we used measurables that had been passed down by DI coaches based on recruit-ability by graduation class.”

Recently we sat down with Coach Harrison to discuss a variety of things.

Minnesota as a state has seen a surge in club programs over the past five years, so our first question was why another club? Harrison believes there was a need. “I thought there really was a need for something different in our state and something that was just not being offered wholly by any existing programs.” This was not just her opinion. She also felt that there were players and parents who were looking for something more. When asked which specific needs were not being met Harrison explained, “The biggest part is the recruiting piece and understanding how to maneuver and how to execute the recruiting process from a player and parent perspective.” By all accounts the plan appears to be working. They now have six DI committed players, one of which was committed prior to the team forming. This has all been done in about six months’ time. The committed players are Brooke Perry, Purdue (2016, P, Clemmons, NC), Jordan Little, Wisconsin (2016, SS, Hudson, WI), Payton Hanson, Coastal Carolina (2016, CF, Big Lake, MN), Brittany Davis, Toledo (2017, 3B, Champlin Park, MN), Abbey Long, Quinnipiac (2016, P, Eau Claire, WI) and Morgan Paaverud, Toledo (2016, 1B, Anoka, MN).

A lot of thought has gone into how this program runs and much of the approach came from Program Director and 18U Lady Lightning Gold Team Miken Head Coach, John Corn. When asked what the “mission” of her program was, Harrison said, “The first thing I would tell you is that it is not for everybody. We need full buy-in from the players and the parents. There is a lot of travel and a lot of commitment to be a part of this program.” With that said she continued, “Ultimately our mission is preparation for college.” According to Harrison “It’s not just about getting the player recruited at the next level, since a lot of that legwork falls on the player and parents. It’s about helping the players understand what a target market looks like and how to arrive at the right target market for them. We help them identify their goals and make sure that they are realistic and what realistic looks like for each player. Beyond that it is about getting them ready for the next level, and as far as we are concerned if we are going to push that DI level, it does not stop at the college commitment. Rather that is when the real work starts. We take a holistic approach with our players. They must maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA in order to be a part of our organization. We assist them in understanding recruiting, skill set growth, individual work ethic and strong team dynamic. We spend countless hours making sure they are improving individually and as a team in the physical, mental and emotional components of the game. We make sure that every game on our schedule is purposeful. We make every dollar count in our budget by going to the right events for our players, based on their recruiting and competition needs.”

Understanding the recruiting process is one thing, but understanding the level of sacrifice and commitment at the next level can be a whole different thing. Often young players do not fully grasp it. Harrison believes that young players have several misconceptions as it relates to playing at the top level in college softball. “The first misconception as it relates to the recruiting process is that people think the coaches are going to come seek them out. No, you have to seek them out,” Harrison said.

The Lady Lightning Gold Midwest may have a slight advantage due to their relationship with the flagship Lady Lightning Gold program, but Harrison still thinks they have work to do. “Even though we are wearing a Lady Lightning jersey, we are still a Midwest market team and not all that well known. John and I do a lot of legwork to get college coaches to the fields, but the girls are doing the work to get coaches to know who they are and communicate schedules, etc… Many college coaches are taking notice of players in our market and are excited that the Lady Lightning Gold organization has representation here.” On moving on to the college level, “They do not get how hard it is going to be and they do not grasp the sacrifice. What I tell the girls is that you are going to be afforded a lot of things regular college students are not. You get to travel, you get to have amazing experiences and you step on campus with a family, your team who will be there to support you.

That is not something every college student gets”. Those are the positives and Harrison also points out, “There are also a lot of sacrifices that need to be made. You won’t be in this club or that club, you won’t being carrying a max load of classes in the Spring, and you won’t be going out as much as other students do.” Then there is the whole workout aspect of being a DI college athlete. “The competition is so much tougher, so the preparation for games at that level has to be so much higher.”

This hits on one of the goals of her program, which is preparing her players now or rather helping them become more accustomed to it. Harrison says, “They need to understand that when they are on a college roster, they are not just going to be handed a position. Not everyone will play. It’s not just about having fun anymore. At the collegiate level, it is about winning.” Often players have aspirations, dreams or goals to play at the DI level, yet at times they are not doing the work that is needed to get there. Harrison has seen it over the years. “If a player has a goal to play at a DI level program, they cannot come in and say they really wanted to get their extra hitting or conditioning in but… they went to the mall with their friends or they had too much homework, etc. The excuse does not matter, these things have to get done. To reach such a lofty goal, preparation needs to be a lifestyle.” Expanding she said, “We can do everything we can to prepare them, but until they are there and experience it, they will never really know completely what it will be like.”

It appears that over recent years Minnesota players are playing at a higher level. We asked Harrison where she thought the state was overall. She tends to think that the talent pool is getting a bit diluted stating, “The main culprit could be multiple teams at each age level within an organization. There is always somewhere for you to play, and that is even the case at the college level with DI, DII, DIII, NAIA and NJCAA. But not every player is bound for the top level and maybe in Minnesota we need to work more with our community programs to keep them strong. There just are not many “club” teams that are at a high level.” She also believes there has been some growth. “However we now have training centers and resources we did not have in the past. When I grew up playing in Southern California, we were thrilled to face off against a team from a place like Minnesota. Basically if you came from a place where it snowed, we knew we would hang a ton of runs on you. It is not like that anymore. Teams are competing at the national level.” She goes on to say, “Talent is talent, and there is nothing in the water in California that makes them better athletes. Our girls are tough and athletic and in some ways maybe even more well-rounded. But we still face the simple fact that for five months out of the year we do not get outside.” Another area she has seen growth is in coaching. Harrison said, “We have better coaching. We have coaches that are specialized and coaches that are more dedicated to softball.”

The team plays a pretty aggressive out of state schedule basically not playing in Minnesota at all. We asked what the parents’ response to the schedule was and Harrison replied, “The parents are on board understanding the need for our schedule. If we truly want to prepare our players, we need to put them up against the best national level competition possible, against the players they will eventually face off against at the DI level and that requires extensive travel. We have been able to keep costs down and we’re are not looking to bleed the checkbook. From a fee perspective and for what we are, we feel that we are one of the less expensive club options, but we will be traveling a lot and there are expenses associated with that.”
When parents are investing money into something like this, they tend to want to see their kid play. Harrison feels that she has set the right expectation for this team. How they approach showcase events is different than how they approach competitive events. “When we are at a showcase event and a college coach wants to see a certain player at a certain spot, we will move them there immediately. The kids have responded great to supporting one another and understanding the situation.” Things are a bit different when they attend their competitive events. Harrison expands, “When we come into a competition event, we play to win and find success. It’s about putting our best or hottest nine on both sides of the ball. I tell my players that if you are not getting it done, there will be a nice warm spot next to me on the bench, period. I love them. I want to see them succeed, but at the end of the day it is the team that we are concerned about. If someone is struggling, in the moment it is what it is, but the team has to be the priority. Ultimately this is exactly what these girls will be faced with at the collegiate level also. Teaching them now how to face that type of adversity will only prepare them more for the futures they are seeking.”

Harrison also commented about the girls’ and parents’ perspective about Lady Lightning Gold Midwest. “The most rewarding part of this endeavor has been seeing how well this group of girls and families have gelled together. The credit really goes to all of them for having faith in John and I to create the experience they were ultimately looking for. They still needed to take the leap and try something completely new. The girls love being together, supporting one another and are truly happy for each others’ successes. The families are supportive of all the players and enjoy spending time together at events and practice facilities. I feel as though we have stuck to our top priority of making this experience all about the girls and their needs and it’s paying off for each of them in ways they have never experienced before.”

Coach Harrison is off to a good start with the Lady Lightning Gold Midwest and based on our lengthy conversation there is no reason not to think they will only get better.