Love. People. Family. Those are new UConn softball coach Laura Valentino’s most important values, in that order. She has tasked herself with creating a “championship culture” at UConn, and for her that starts with creating a strong family bond amongst the team.
“I value caring about people and I have a true passion for being in an atmosphere that values family. I want UConn to be a second family for these kids,” Valentino said. “It’s my family now, and I have really thrived off impacting people on a daily basis. That is what I truly love to do.”
In her first head coaching role, Valentino is looking to bring a family atmosphere to UConn softball. It starts with her endless passion for helping her players grow, both between the lines and between the ears. She grew up in a family of teachers and went to school to become one herself at Hofstra and Fairfield, before deciding to pursue coaching.
When asked what makes her an asset to this program and UConn athletics, Valentino responded with confidence:
“The main thing is my passion and my work ethic,” Valentino said. “I think that it is second-to-none, in comparison to a lot of people. I am extremely passionate about teaching the game and coaching players to be champions on and off the field.”
Her first priority at the helm of the program was to build relationships with the current players. On her second day on the job, Valentino held a video call with the entire team and then in the following days called each player on the roster to begin getting to know them one-on-one.
“This is my family right off the bat, and I want them to feel that I love them just as much as I’ll love the players that I recruit in years to come,” Valentino said. “It is very important for me to know what their purpose is here at UConn: what they want to be, what goals they want to achieve and how I can help them grow on and off the field.”
Valentino has spoken with her two returning captains, Carli Cutler and Olivia Sappington, on a few occasions. Cutler and Sappington will be relied on to help facilitate this transition with the younger players. They will act as her messengers for the rest of the team. Though this is not unusual for teams, Valentino is confident that it will bring the players and the coaching staff closer. Keeping a pulse on the players’ mindsets can only help in her pursuit of success.
“It’s been nothing but wonderful,” Cutler said. “Her vision for our program is truly incredible and I’m really excited about her passion for our program, the team and everything that we have moving forward.”
Valentino has begun to foster relationships not only with the players in her locker room, but with their families as well. While in Colorado, she met both Olivia and incoming freshman Emily Sappington for the first time at a travel softball tournament. Olivia said Valentino spent the entire game getting to know the family, asking her parents, Jerry and Salle, about a range of things including softball and their own experiences growing up.
“I would say she is very family oriented, which, not that we have lacked it, but it hasn’t been a main focus in our program so far,” said Sappington. “We are focused on being a unit, all playing together as one, and adding that family aspect that coach [Valentino] brings will be huge for us.”
Valentino previously coached at Duke University as an assistant in their newly minted softball program. Valentino and the rest of the Duke coaching staff led the team to a winning record in their inaugural season in 2017-18, going 29-27 with a 13-11 record in the ACC.
They then followed it up with a season in which they were ranked No. 23 in the country in fielding percentage at .973, something that UConn struggled with at times. Last season the Huskies finished the season with a .960 fielding percentage, with 52 errors in total or just under one per game.
“I like to remind people that you can lose a game off one play on defense, whereas you have 21 opportunities to change the game from an offensive standpoint,” said Valentino on defense’s importance to the game.
Now at UConn, Coach Valentino is coming in with no performance expectations, according to Olivia. She is looking to spend the year developing the atmosphere and learning the players, so that they can win in the future. In the program’s last year in The American, Valentino will still look to be competitive, but games won is not the measure for a successful season at this point.
“She has been in a Power 5 [conference] and she knows how to win, but we are still rebuilding and she wants to see where everyone is at,” said Sappington. “She wants to come in and build relationships and take those relationships towards making everybody better people before being a championship program.”
Before coaching, Valentino won as a player at Hofstra, as she was a part of their two winningest seasons in program history. In 2008 and 2010, Hofstra won 45 games with Valentino on the squad.
In her time as an assistant coach at Fairfield, she helped the team to a pair of MAAC regular season championships and two second place finishes in the conference tournament. She was tasked with helping in multiple areas of the game there, aiding in the on-field performance of offense, defense and pitching as well as off-field recruiting and team administration. Now she will look to continue those efforts at the helm of the Huskies.
“She wants to continue building on the success the team had this past season and wants to go on to win championship titles,” said Emily Sappington on Valentino’s aspirations.
Valentino inherits a team that is coming off a crushing, incomplete postseason. Due to poor weather conditions, the team was not allowed to complete its conference tournament game against Houston last May, stripping the team of any hope to end the season on a high note.
“I think they are hungry to be held to a higher standard and take their work ethic to another level,” Valentino said.
There has been a change of the guard in Storrs. Now comes a time for patience in the pursuit of the ultimate prize, a Big East title.
Mike Mavredakis is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.