Pitt’s Hermanek set to face former team for first time

By Michael Nitti , Staff Writer

After being in the opposing dugout in Pitt’s 6-1 loss to Ohio University last season, first-year softball head coach Jodi Hermanek will look to lead the Panthers to a win in their home opener. It will be her first time coaching against Ohio University after spending 10 years there as head coach.

Hermanek will square off against her former team on Tuesday when the Panthers take on Ohio. Prior to being hired at Pitt, she spent 10 years as Ohio’s head coach and won two Mid-American Conference Tournament championships en route to becoming the winningest coach in the program’s history.

“As a coach, I really learned how to evolve a program and how to embed yourself, your culture and your philosophies into a sustainable program,” Hermanek said. “It took me a couple of years to get the right kind of recruits and the right kind of stigma going on there.”

Hermanek was hired as the head coach of Pitt’s softball team this past summer after former head coach Holly Aprile resigned to take the same position at Louisville.

Before Hermanek took over as Ohio’s head coach, the team was coming off a season that saw them go 29-26 and make a surprise run to the 2008 MAC Tournament Championship before losing to Kent State. Ohio went 21-25 with a 12-12 conference record and lost its only two games in the double-elimination MAC Tournament in 2009 — Hermanek’s first year as head coach.

Fast-forward a year later, Ohio finished 20-30, but with a vastly improved 15-8 conference record. Hermanek would go on to lead the team to two more winning conference records before falling below .500 in conference play in 2013 for the first time in her career at Ohio.

The following year, Ohio went 32-26 and 12-8 in the conference and won the 2014 MAC Tournament Championship for the first time in program history.

The win was special for Hermanek for another reason, as it was a week after her daughter was born. It also showed Hermanek’s dedication to her team.

“I gave birth to my daughter Emma in 2014, and she was seven days old when we entered the MAC tournament,” Hermanek said. “It was so surreal … having Emma as our baby champion was one of the most amazing experiences, and not just for myself, but for those student-athletes to be a part of it.”

Following a down year in 2015, Ohio compiled a staggering 119-58 record while going 51-19 in conference play over Hermanek’s final three seasons as Ohio’s head coach. During the 2018 season that concluded her 10-year tenure at Ohio, the team went 40-17, and 20-3 in conference play before taking home its second MAC Tournament Championship in six years.

“In 2017, we lost two games of a double-header in the championship, when all we had to do was win one of them, and we ended up losing 14 innings straight to Kent State,” Hermanek said. “The next year we came in with this horrible taste in our mouths and awful feeling in our stomachs and we knew we were never going to relive that.”

After winning the MAC Tournament, Ohio won its first regional games ever in the NCAA Tournament, beating Monmouth and James Madison before losing to Tennessee in the semifinals, which put an end to a historic season and career.

“I built some amazing relationships with the administration, everyone there is just family,” Hermanek said. “They were super supportive, we had a lot of niches of personal and professional relationships there that were created over a long span of time.”

Junior catcher Walker Barbee transferred after two years at Elon University and has started 16 games this season for the Panthers, tallying two RBIs while throwing out four runners from behind the plate. Barbee describes Hermanek’s ability to create a strong sense of unity as a big factor for her decision to come to Pitt.

“One thing that really stuck out to me was [Hermanek’s] will to win and her will to really develop a community that feels like a family,” Barbee said. “We’re all sisters, we all love each other, we fight hard for each other on the field.”

In the midst of her first season at Pitt, Hermanek feels she can offer a great deal to the program.

“I bring into Pitt the opportunity of creating a new, enriched relationship with new people,” Hermanek said. “Knowing how to build a sustainable, strong-standing program, a championship-winning program and a family-building program, I want to up the ante and go a step further and produce who I am into the Pitt Panther culture.”

Hermanek’s culture is evident to Pitt players, including sophomore outfielder Hunter Levesque. Levesque is coming off an All-ACC Freshman-caliber season in 2018 and has started every game for the Panthers so far this year.

“I really admire [Hermanek’s] optimism and her family-oriented style,” Levesque said. “She brings a great presence, a great positive vibe to field, and it brings more energy and life to the game itself, and we learned that there’s so much more to the game of softball.”

Hermanek isn’t just bringing who she is into Pitt softball, but also to the City of Pittsburgh. Having been hired back in August, Hermanek moved from a small town near Athens to the greater Pittsburgh area. Despite considering Pittsburgh a great city, she could do without the City traffic.

“One of the things I’ve loved about being a small-town girl my whole life is that seven minutes and seven miles mean the exact same thing,” Hermanek said. “In Pittsburgh, I live about seven miles from campus and it takes me almost 25 minutes.”

Despite that, Hermanek loves what the Steel City has to offer.

“In Pittsburgh, you can turn left and find a completely different environment and I’m still eyes-wide-open to all the new experiences and all that this city has to offer,” Hermanek said. “I think in year three, I’ll have more opportunity to really gain ground here and continue to appreciate its values more.”

First pitch on Tuesday against Ohio is set for 4 p.m. at Vartabedian Field.