Wednesday, March 23, 2016

EXCLUSIVE: Our interview with former Lobos assistant Jennifer McKibben

Left to right:  Jennifer McKibben, Erica Beach, and Lyndsey Angus

The Mountain West Softball Blog sat down recently with Jennifer McKibben, a name very familiar to those who follow college softball.  The former assistant coach at New Mexico and standout softball catcher at Virginia Tech, McKibben earned all-conference honors twice with the Hokies and was the team's Defensive Player of the Year in 1997 and MVP in 1998.  After spending eight years as an assistant at Tallahassee Community College, where she helped guide the Eagles to six appearances and two championships in the NJCAA Region 8B/FCSAA Gulf District Tournament, McKibben joined the Lobos staff as a volunteer assistant in the Fall of 2013.

After the 2015 season, McKibben left the Lobos to become an assistant coach at junior college power Pensacola State under head coach Lyndsey Angus, also a former assistant at New Mexico. 

In this interview, we discuss with McKibben the sport of college softball in general, her time with the Lobos softball program, her new position, and -- among other things -- how the Mountain West is perceived nationally.  We hope you enjoy it.

Hi coach! First of all, thanks for doing this interview. How are you enjoying life in Pensacola?
Thanks so much for having me be a part of this!  Pensacola is great!  We have all settled in really well in the athletic department and with the team, and it definitely is a plus being 10 minutes from some of the most beautiful beaches in the country. Makes it a fun day when you get to do team conditioning and activities in paradise! 

How was the transition, on either a personal or professional level, in making the move from Albuquerque to Pensacola? 
I'm originally from Florida so it was smooth sailing getting back to the south surrounded by family and longtime friends (and sweet tea!).  Professionally, junior college softball is something that has always been in my blood, both since I played and then coached in it for so long.  It presents a healthy challenge that always keeps you satisfied that you are continually changing lives and helping players get to a level maybe no one gave them a chance to ... whether it be athletically or academically, or lost in the recruiting process. It's a passion to get these athletes better and better in all aspects of their lives that makes being here so rewarding every single day.

Describe the biggest differences going from an NCAA Division I softball program to a junior
Pensacola State coaching staff 
college program that competes in the Panhandle Conference.
The University of New Mexico taught me so much in my time there.  That was the one level that I hadn't coached at yet, and Erica Beach gave me so much experience to learn at the highest level.  At the D-I level you have a roster of athletes that are so phenomenal and understand what a privilege it is to play and train on that level, day in and day out. Here in the Panhandle, we have teams that can compete with some mid-major D-Is, but there are always those spots here and there in the lineups you can work around. We all have amazing facilities like fields and weight rooms, but sometimes not the personnel, such as field crews, strength and conditioning staff, for example, that the D-Is have.  So it's a lot of extra work for our athletes and us as coaches to make sure we are doing everything in our power to prepare them when they move on to play 4-year ball. The Panhandle Conference, though, is if not the best, at least one of the top two JC conferences in the country for softball and all sports.  If you look at some rosters at some major D-I baseball/softball/basketball schools across the country, you will more times than not see an athlete that transferred from a Panhandle school.  Needless to say, there is no "off game" when competing in this conference.

What's a typical gameday experience like at Pensacola State compared to your former home, the University of New Mexico? 
The 2016 Pensacola State softball team
It's actually almost exactly the same.  Lyndsey Angus [former New Mexico assistant coach and now head coach at Pensacola State] has coached D-I softball her whole life (5 years at UNM) and has implemented 90 percent of those gameday routines into our program here. We have such a great community that supports all of our athletes so the crowds are great and it's always fun when the Blue Angels happen to be practicing and they fly overhead (they are based out of Pensacola).

You were a volunteer coach with the Lobos and now an assistant coach with the Pirates. How different are those two positions? 
First off, Coach Beach was so gracious and I never felt like just a volunteer.  She ingrained me in the staff so much and gave me so much input and it was so rewarding and helped me grow.  BUT my most favorite thing I now get to do -- and what is my passion is -- I get to recruit again.  For eight years when I was at Tallahassee Community College, I was the recruiting coordinator and all of it fell in my hands and I thrive off that.  I love building relationships with future players and coaches.  It's great to be back out at tournaments and watching games and making phone calls and building our team with the athletes we want to be a part of our family. We have some great Californians coming in next year.  Also a Canadian and a couple of Australian players in the works too.  We are super excited about what the future holds.

How did you first become a volunteer assistant at New Mexico?  Take us through that a little.
I had been great friends with Erica for a long time and it was something she would always talk to me about. My old boss lady -- and still, to this day, my mentor and favorite person in all the world -- Patti Townsend at TCC (I was with her for 8 years -- a University of Michigan alum, All-American, Team USA) told me three years ago that now is the time for me to go and see if it's something I would love. So I made the move, which was not easy, and it was so rewarding and I gained so many valuable lessons on the field ... and beautiful relationships with the players and their families and our staff and Lobo community.  It was such a dream come true.  I can't thank Erica enough for giving me the opportunity, or Patti enough for pushing me in the direction of a longtime dream.  Now that I'm back, we face TCC and Patti in conference games.  Her two assistants are two of my former players, so talk about tough and heart wrenching!  (laughs)  But... Go Pirates!

What do you miss most about your time at UNM? And what did you learn there that you've carried with you to your new position? 
I miss every day the players and Coach Beach.  Coaching at UNM helped me calm down a bit and learn to take a step back and not be so intense and hard on my players every time they made a mistake or swung at a bad pitch.  Patience is what I needed to learn and now it's helped me become a better coach and I owe it all to Beach and Angus and the girls at UNM for teaching me to chill out a bit.  (laughs)  I miss the early season tournaments, facing off against UCLA and Arizona State, and all the schools you always dreamed of playing and coaching against.

In your college playing days, you were a catcher. How was your college experience as a player, and did any coaches in your playing days inspire you to get into coaching? 
I had phenomenal coaches all through travel and high school ball that taught me how to play the game hard and the right way.  I played two years at Tallahassee Community College before my time at Virginia Tech and they were the most pivotal in my playing career as far as growing and learning the game better mentally.  Virginia Tech was icing on the cake, and Scot Thomas, who is still there by the way, gave me the freedom to call my own pitches and run the show.  So I took ownership of every game and every pitch call, which is what I love to pass on to my catchers I work with now.  I honestly didn't think I wanted to coach in college because my passion outside of softball lies with working with severe special needs students in the classroom (which I did in New Mexico, and now again here in Pensacola), but all it took was one of my former VT teammates to get me out helping her high school team.  I was hooked!  It's so much more than coaching to me.  It's about the relationships and hoping you get the chance to change someone's life.

Is there any talk in the state of Florida about the Mountain West?  Do softball fans or coaches in the south actually pay attention to an NCAA Division I conference in the west outside of the PAC-12? 
Actually,  down here it's, "You mean there is someone besides the SEC?"  (laughs)  Well of course! You know how many southern softball fans follow Lobo softball now? (laughs again)  No, but there were some questions.  When they think Mountain West Conference down here, they think Boise State football if anything.  But with former Florida State softball player Carly Wynn and former Florida State assistant Sarah Pickering now at Fresno State, people down here (especially in the Panhandle) absolutely know what a great conference it is.  You also have former Florida State standout Windy Thees at Utah State as an assistant, so people have continued to follow their whereabouts because they are amazing people as well as athletes.  Now you have Shelby Pendley coaching at UNM, and of course Stacey Nuveman at San Diego State to add in the mix of some outstanding athletes and gold medalists changing the game in the Mountain West. Also add in what players like Fresno State's Jill Compton and San Diego State's Jenavee Peres have done for our conference on the national level and the Mountain West is definitely in the mix of great softball conferences. 

You're coaching now under former New Mexico assistant coach Lyndsey Angus, who, like you, was a catcher in college. And you're also alongside an assistant coach at Pensacola State -- Jordan Sjostrand -- who played at UNM very recently.  How did this New Mexico to Florida thing work out so well? 
Coach Angus knew my experience in junior college softball and recruiting.  We are bringing in eight to nine players per year, plus being from Florida, it was a no-brainer that I was willing to make the move back home ... not easily or without being sad leaving the Lobos, but it was really a perfect fit. And with Jordan, we knew it would be a great opportunity for her since she was questioning if she wanted to coach college softball.  Her work ethic as a player really sealed the deal, because she works even harder to learn the game and the ins and outs of the business side of coaching.  She has been a blessing.  We also added Lauren Gaskill, who was a 4 year starter at shortstop and center field, and lead off hitter for Virginia Tech.  She brings this crazy energetic, "let's get after it" type of attitude, and is a natural coach.  She will make a D-I head coach and team very lucky one day when she is ready to move on to be an assistant at that level.  We have a great staff of former players, some younger than others, that would do anything to compete on the field again with a uniform on.  And I think it transcends to our players to understand our love for the game that has done so much for us.

What kind of player is a perfect fit for Pensacola State? 
Someone who loves the game of softball and understands that it's a privilege, not a right, to be able to play at the college level.  Blue collar, not afraid to get dirty, and someone who knows how to meet the moment in tough situations and through adversity.  Someone who is ready and committed to train every day in the classroom and on the field, in our running workouts and in the weight room. Selfless players who understand it's always team and family first.  We will also take a 6'2" lefty pitcher that throws 65 mph+ and someone that can hit 20 bombskies for us too.  (laughs).  Just kidding, not really.  (laughs again)

It seems like every year, softball has a rule change here and there. If you could change anything about the sport of softball, what would it be?  Or do you think the game is fine just the way it is?  
I love the game and we could sit here all day and nitpick details.  I just hope that they continue to give the umpires good education and give all conferences the ability to succeed with the resources they need.

You've been around the sport for awhile now.  How has the game changed in the past 10 years?
Man, if I could use the bats we have now, I may have had a few more long balls to my name.  The athletes are so much stronger and faster and more educated.  With that, I've also seen more burn out because of the number of games these high school girls are playing in the Summer and Fall.  I also remember every tournament in travel ball playing for a championship, and now showcases for the most part have taken over.  But it is what it is.  Softball is still softball and the same game I fell in love with so long ago.

What was your most memorable moment during your time coaching at New Mexico? 
McKibben and the 2015 Lobos team
If I have to pick one, it was a game two years ago when we played San Diego State at home and we just were on fire against Danielle O'Toole.  We ended up losing the game 12-11 I believe, but it was a game that really turned the corner for some players like Mariah Rimmer, Jasmine Casados, and Michala Erickson, and for our young team.  Just helping them all start to understand and gain the mental toughness to compete with the best in the conference, day in and day out. 

If you could say one thing to your former Lobo players, what would it be? 
How amazingly humbled I am to have been able to be a part of their lives and thank them for teaching me how to grow and be better at what I do as a coach.  They are a tremendous group of women who I stay in touch with and watch.  I ponied up and bought a subscription to FloSoftball so we don't have to miss a game. They changed my life and gave me another level of passion for the game I didn't know I had.  They are one of a kind.  Our current team would also like to thank them for bows being allowed, because I was a strictly NO bow coach.  but pitcher Princess Lauren Soles taught me it's all better with bows. So now... I'm a sucker -- but the size of the bow is definitely limited.  (laughs)

That's hilarious.  Well, thanks so much for giving us some great insight, Coach!  And best of luck to you and your Pirates team.
And thank you too!

Note:  You can follow Coach McKibben on Twitter at @kibn08