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Spotlight on Former Athlete: Stephanie DeFeo – Softball 1994-97

DeFeo helped to open the WCWS door

 

 

By Bruce Brown

 

Written for Athletic Network

 

 

If someone began following Ragin’ Cajun softball within the last dozen years, it might seem like UL reaches the Women’s College World Series about every five or six years.

 

After all, the school made it in 2003, 2008 and again in 2014, then made a fourth straight NCAA Super Regional this season.

 

Easy to get used to such success. But it wasn’t always that way. The program endured growing pains and near-misses in postseason before breaking through with its historic first berth in 1993.

 

The Cajuns liked it so much they went back in 1995 and 1996, shockingly missing out in 1994 despite a No. 2 national ranking and a 57-5 record.

 

One big reason they went back-to-back was New Jersey product Stephanie DeFeo, who joined the program in 1994 and quickly found her place on a veteran club loaded with talent and drive.

 

DeFeo went on to earn All-America honors three times, playing first base and designated player. She left with a school-record 43 home runs (15 in her senior season of 1997) in an era dominated by pitching, in addition to compiling a .676 slugging percentage and 187 runs batted in.

 

Now the co-head coach at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., working alongside her brother James, DeFeo recently recalled the Cajuns’ World Series experiences.

 

There were a lot of veterans on that team, and the talent when I got there was unbelievable,” DeFeo said. “Everybody wanted to do their job. We supported each other and came together a lot.

 

You see that a lot today – players talking things over after at-bats. If we were struggling at the plate, our pitchers would throw us extra batting practice.”

 

That included firebrand All-American pitcher Kyla Hall (now Holas), who might also brush back a teammate who irked her.

 

Kyla was a great leader,” DeFeo said. “She wanted to win. She was competitive. She would tell us, ‘Get a hit. I need runs.’ ”

 

Another Cajun ace, Cheryl Longeway, wowed the WCWS crowd in 1995 by no-hitting Michigan on the game’s biggest stage.

 

Cheryl was amazing,” DeFeo said. “We knew she would be dominant in the circle, that if we scored runs, we would win. She put the ball where she wanted. I saw her beat Washington when all she had was a fastball and a change-up. I was always pumped up playing behind her.”

 

DeFeo also valued her time playing for program founder Yvette Girouard, as well as the tutelage of assistant coach Pat Murphy. (Murphy now coaches at Alabama, while Holas is at Houston and DeFeo at Mercer.)

 

Yvette did not let you settle,” DeFeo said. “There was no let-up. We worked hard every day. Playing alongside players like Ally Habetz was special. We were relentless. Yvette demanded excellence and we didn’t want to let her down.

 

She tried to get the best players, and we knew that we were good. If you got hurt, you played through it. My freshman year, I slid into third and knew I had rolled my ankle. But you tape it and keep playing. I was cleated in the knee once,and Yvette said we’re going to pull your sock back up and put a Band-Aid on it. You said, ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and did it.

 

It was a different level of intensity, and I miss that. It’s a different mentality now, but they’re good kids and it’s so great to be a part of this.”

 

To no one’s surprise, Girouard joins Holas this summer in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, while DeFeo credits Murphy for helping to refine her as an offensive weapon.

 

I was raw when I got there, and Pat molded me to be able to hit to all fields,” she said. “As a freshman, it was ‘see ball, hit ball.’ I didn’t know any better. Pat inspired me to be a better player – even as an assistant.”

 

DeFeo was also unafraid to ask advice from other teams’ stars, like Arizona’s Laura Espinosa, and relished matching skills with Espinosa and UA teammate Jenny Dalton. It was all about competing every day at the highest level.

 

DeFeo was initially unrefined, but gifted, as she drove to join the game’s elite.

 

I knew how to get there, what it took, and had the work ethic,” she said. “It’s about doing more. You’ve got to put the work in. Me and Kathy Morton would go back to the field at night, set up the machine, then keep hitting until the balls were all over the fence. Then, we’d go pick them up.

 

It was always in me. At the same time, there was this thing in my head – be better or someone will take my place – that drove me.”

 

In high school, DeFeo also played basketball and tennis, with the basketball program a fixture in state finals play. But softball trumped those other sports.

 

We never lost in basketball,” DeFeo said. “That showed me how to compete, too. But softball was great, because I had a lot of power in whether we won or lost in softball.”

 

DeFeo now translates that intensity and drive into coaching, instead of utilizing her criminal justice degree.

 

I am a little surprised,” she admitted. “I had a couple of different opportunities to be part of a police department, or take the FBI test, but I decided to stick with coaching. Softball is my passion. I love this game.

 

As a coach, there are so many different emotions in a game. I coach to see these kids have that ‘Aha!’ moment. I’d love for them to experience getting to a regional or the World Series – especially at a mid-major. We could be a powerhouse.

 

I work with our pitching coach (Kim Mazzapica), endlessly recruiting. There are always obstacles, but it’s about the kids, making them better.”

 

DeFeo, who coached previously at Southeastern La., Buffalo, Texas-San Antonio, East Tennessee, Ball State and Purdue, thrives in the arena.

 

The best coaches care unconditionally about their players, whether it’s the star pitcher or a pinch runner,” she said. “I care equally about all of them. They know there is no at-bat where I will give up on them.

 

The best coaches are the ones that evolve every day. Every generation is different, and you have to adapt. If there’s a better way to do it, I’ll find it. I’m like a sponge.”

 

Mercer’s youthful Bears finished 37-22 in 2015 and reached the Southern Conference tournament finals, highlighted by all-conference sophomore Kirsten Stevens’ no-hitter in tournament play. They were 39-19 in 2014, the first season of the DeFeo pairing.

 

We had just two true upperclassmen this year, so we were young,” DeFeo said. “We had a lot of success, though still growing.”

 

Mercer’s brother-sister coaching pairing is working well, both on and off the field.

 

It’s nice being near family,” she said. “The No. 1 thing for me is being near my nieces and nephews. And, in coaching, the level of trust is higher.”

 

Stephanie DeFeo breathed the rarified air of college softball success as a player. She still carries fond memories of those days, but she’s focused on the present and the future.

 

In the offseason, we have camps for kids,” she said. “I can tell as young as (age) 8 that a kid could be a stud. I asked this one the other day how she was doing, and she said, ‘I’m awesome.’ ”

 

DeFeo loves the bravado, as long as it’ supported by hard work.

 

 

Stephanie DeFeo at a Glance

 

Named to All-America, All-South and All-Louisiana as a freshman in 1994, when she batted .435 and set a school record for slugging percentage at .739.

 

Batted .409 as a sophomore, repeating as All-America.

 

Led Cajuns in home runs (8) and RBI (37) as a junior.

 

Slugged 15 home runs in All-America senior campaign, finishing with a school-record 43 homers.

 

Team leader in home runs all four years, in RBI final three seasons (1995-97).

 

Set school career records for homers (43), RBI (187), walks (94) and slugging percentage (.676).

 

Games – 230. Hits – 240. Runs – 147. RBI – 187. Average – .383.

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1994 – Stephanie Defeo, who made first team All-American as a designated player, takes out a catcher at Lady Cajun Park.


The 1997 Lady Cajuns Softball Team. Stephanie is in back row, third from left.

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Click here for the chronological listings of the Spotlight on Former Athletes.