DuBOIS — Everyone loves an underdog, and the Penn State DuBois softball team will certainly be that this week as the Lady Lions make the program’s first-ever appearance in the USCAA Small College World Series on their home turf at Heindl Field.
The Lady Lions, in their third year of existence, are much more than your typical Cinderella story — so much so that most Hollywood producers might find it hard to believe it if their journey to the World Series was handed to them as a movie script.
That’s because the program’s demise nearly came in each of its first two years. And, no one knows the ups and downs of those first two years better than Samantha Satterlee, a junior on the current Penn State DuBois squad.
Satterlee is the lone player left in the program from that inaugural team back in 2016-17, while assistant coach Lauresa Gulvas is the only other link to the program’s inception.
Satterlee, a 2016 Punxsutawney graduate who won back-to-back District 9 Class 3A titles with the Lady Chucks, was already enrolled and on campus as a freshman at Penn State DuBois when she was asked if she was interested in playing for the softball team.
She joined the program, which made it through just 10 games before injuries forced the season to be cancelled and the final 10 games forfeited due to a lack of players. DuBois lost all 10 of the games it played that season, scoring one run or less in six of them.
“Coming from Punxsy where we always had good teams, that first year was really tough for me,” said Satterlee. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen (with team) or what I might do. I thought about not playing, us not having a team and even maybe transferring.
“I decided to stay, and in the end, it wasn’t really a tough decision. I love the sport, plus I had put in all the hard work the year before. I walked in Ken Nellis’ office the first day of my sophomore year and asked if we had a coach yet, and he said no, that he was still looking. At that point, we weren’t even sure if we would have enough girls for a team or even have a team at all.”
That’s when Satterlee and incoming freshman Laura Fatula, a DuBois Area graduate, hit the pavement to recruit players as Gulvas did her best to keep the program together while the search for a new head coach continued.
“Laura Fatula and I went to the campus Club Fair and tried to talk to different girls and recruit them,” said Satterlee. “That’s when we got Cierra O’Shell to play. She came here just to play basketball at first but decided to do both.
“We were practicing up at DCC (DuBois Central Catholic) with the girls we had at that time with Coach Reese (Gulvas), and we were just trying to keep the team together.”
Enter Jason Kern, who was brought in as head coach in October tof 2017.
“When Ken Nellis interviewed me and ultimately Penn State DuBois hired me, we had a very minimal roster. That was in October of 2017, so it was after the semester started and I wasn’t able to recruit anybody out of high school at that time.
“So literally, I would be sitting outside classrooms waiting for girls to come out of a class to talk to them. They were girls I knew had played softball in high school, and I was able to get a couple players out for the team. Morgan Uhl was one, Autumn Shaffer was another. Those girls came in and really helped out. They really started laying the foundation last year.
“But, the program really was still in its infancy stage. They only made it through 10 games that first year and had to forfeit other 10, so I knew taking the job is was going to be starting from scratch (again). One thing wanted to do was keep a member of the previous coaching staff around because she knew the team.
“And, I’m so thankful every day that I kept Lauresa Gulvas around because what she did last year, and what she — along with Leah Wallock and Bo Scott — have done as my assistants this year make my job a whole lot easier. They are fantastic at what they do.”
Kern eventually assembled an 11-player roster late in his first year — one that featured no one who had pitched at the high school level. A couple of the position players, including Fatula and fellow DuBois grad Shaffer, stepped up and learned how to pitch on the fly while splitting time in the field.
Despite that inexperience in the circle, the team found a way to win to some games in what finished as a 5-17 season. White it was admittedly not a great year, it was a big step in the right direction for a program that lasted just 10 games the previous season.
Fast forward a year, and the team finds itself in a totally different situation — a day away from stepping foot on the field for its first-ever World Series game. Gone is a group of girls who went 5-17 and in its place is a team — or family as Satterlee likes to call it — that has quadrupled its win total (20-13) while making a run all the way to the PSUAC) Tournament championship game prior to its World Series selection.
And, it was all made possible by the fact Kern and his staff had an entire year to recruit and put together the perfect incoming class to pair with veteran returnees Satterlee, Fatula, O’Shell, Melody Young and Koren McCullough.
“Coach Kern always says he would rather have the right 11 players than the wrong 15,” said Satterlee. “And, that truly is the case with this team. We really have come together as a family. I’ve been on good teams before where not everyone got along, and it affects how the team does.
“I’ve been really impressed with some of the (new) recruits Coach Kern brought in this year, and we really are a team where we all get along really well. We eliminated the negative aspect, and I think that closeness has helped in our success this year. We not only get along on the field, but we all hang out off the field too.”
That all started with the type of players Kern went after in what turned out to be a six-member freshmen class for this season.
“Lauresa and I sat down last year and looked at potential recruits, and we wanted to recruit the right individual, not the right player,” said Kern. “You want to know how they are off the field, how they are with their teammates.
“Those type of things can be more important than the kind of player they are on the field. That is big with our program and should be big with any program. We’ve brought in the right individuals, and these ladies love each other and all get along, and that makes coaching that much easier.
“The first recruit we looked at was Lizzy Scott from West Branch. It really started with her and our focus was to get good pitching because last year we didn’t have a prototypical pitcher. We had to make position players into pitchers. Once we got Lizzy, we kind of built out from there.
“We were able to get Brooke Harvey, another pitcher. Her dad is the head coach at Northwest High School out near Wilkes-Barre, so we knew she was very well-coached coming in.
“Getting those two laid the foundation. Then we got Makenzie Lukehart (outfielder) and the dominoes started to fall from there.”
Kern also added Kayleigh MacTavish (catcher) and Skylar Ceprish (shortstop), high school teammates of Scott, and first base Cayleigh Huffman — who made the long journey from Cabot, Ark., to join the program.
“We had six good freshmen come in this year, and they all have made an impact,” said Kern. “With them, I felt we could take that next step this year. Our very first (team) meeting was around Labor Day, and the first thing I told them was we (coaches) felt we had a team that could compete for a championship and possibly get to the World Series.
“We told them they just had to work hard in fall ball and in the preseason in the spring. They worked hard in the weight room and bought into the system. We purposely scheduled hard teams at the beginning of the year (2 teams also in World Series) to see where we were at as a team.”
Kern’s feelings came to fruition.
The team did compete for a conference title, going 3-2 in the PSUAC Tournament to finish second. All three wins were upsets.
DuBois, the third seed from the West Division, first knocked off West No. 2 Fayette, 3-1, to reach the double elimination part of the tourney at Heindl Field last week. There, DuBois traded wins and losses. It beat East Division champ Hazleton twice (5-4, 2-1) and lost twice to Brandywine, 3-0, then 7-1 in the championship game — a victory that gave Brandywine its fifth straight PSUAC crown.
The team then played the waiting game for a couple hours before the World Series selection show aired online.
“We were watching the (selection) show, and Fayette got in (No. 4 seed) and then Hazleton (No. 7 seed),” said Satterlee. “At that point, we thought there was no way we’d make it because we knew Brandywine (conference champ) had to get in too. We said there’s no way four teams from our conference will make it.
“Then they got to No. 9 and said, ‘Our no. 9 seed, making their first-ever appearance or however they said it …. Penn State DuBois.’ When we heard our name, we just started screaming. It was such a cool moment to spend with Coach Reese since we’ve been here together from the very beginning.
Kern said that exchange is one he’ll never forget.
“Lauresa has such a passion for this program and wants to see it succeed so bad,” he said. “To see the joy on her face, as well as Sam Satterlee’s face, when the announcement was made that we made the World Series made me feel so good.
“I actually got a little teary-eyed watching them. I was more happy for those two more than anything else.”
Satterlee and Kern also openly discussed the importance of the World Series bid, and the team’s overall success this year.
“It feels awesome to be recognized for our hard work,’ said Satterlee. “We’ve been in the shadow of the baseball team from the beginning. I’m a business major and had class with a lot of the baseball players and would hear about it all the time.
“So, it feels great to finally have some success after two rough years and earn some respect from people — especially on campus.”
“One of the very first things people told to me when I took the job was how this is a baseball campus and softball is an afterthought,” said Kern. “I told them it can be both, but you have to put in the time and the effort. Then the rewards will come down the road. That day has come for us, but that doesn’t mean you stop working hard.”
Satterlee for one is happy she decided to keep working and not walk away after the way things ended that first season.
“It’s been an awesome experience, and I’m so glad I decided to stay,” she said. “I credit Ken Nellis for keeping the program around. He easily could have pulled the program after that first year or even that second year when we weren’t sure we would even have a team.
“Now here we are, in the World Series. I asked Coach Reese at the (selection) party if two years ago she could have imagined us being where we are now. She said no, and I said the same thing.”
But they are, and the pair will hit the field with their “family” Monday looking to win a national title — an opportunity that appeared all but lost just two short years ago.