It’s a whole new ballgame when coaches switch from baseball to softball

Wednesday, April 26, 2023 | 11:01 AM

It was like a strange but lucid dream.

The field was closing in. The dimensions were shrinking. The fence was so close, he felt like he could reach out and touch it.

And that high-pitched yelling in the dugout: What was that all about?

Tommy Quealy wasn’t hallucinating. He was just coaching softball for the first time.

The experience, as any baseball-guy-turned-softball-coach will tell you, is odd at first — and second, and third.

“I’m looking around like, ‘What is all of this?’” said Quealy, who migrated from baseball to softball and is an assistant at Norwin, along with another first-year staffer — his father, Tom.

“We knew they were looking for coaches at the middle school level, but we ended up helping out with the varsity. Me and my dad talked, and we said ‘let’s go for it.’

“We owe a lot to (head coach) Brian (Mesich) and (assistant) Brenna (Mesich). It’s great to be able to coach with my dad. I am blessed to be able to do that.”

Tommy Quealy was a standout player at Norwin and played Division I baseball at Mount St. Mary’s.

His father was a longtime assistant to Mike Liebdzinski on the Norwin baseball team. Tommy also helped out with the varsity after his college career ended.

The Quealys have worked at the Baseball Academy of Norwin, along with another Norwin alum, current minor leaguer Max McDowell.

Liebdzinski resigned last year after 19 seasons, and the staff went with him.

The elder Quealy said the itch to coach didn’t go away. The softball opportunity intrigued him. So did the idea of experiencing a new venture with his son.

While it is still taking him time to warm up to the concept of slap-hitters and what they do, and many fewer pitching changes, he is gaining his chops with an open mind.

“I really didn’t know what to expect, but it’s been fun,” the elder Quealy said. “The biggest thing is the hard-hit balls. In baseball, you have to hit a pretty hard drive to get one to the fence, to get a double. Here, it’s boom, they hit and they’re at second already.”

While two decades-plus of baseball instruction made Quealy a creature of habit — baseball has a leg up on many sports in that area — softball has kept him alert and mindful of new things.

“The double-cuts really got me,” Tom Quealy said. “You have girls covering this spot or that one. I’m like, where are they going? There are a lot of things defensively that stand out. And I still don’t understand the flex or DP.”

Some other tough guys have also become “softies.”

Yough softball coach Art “Dutch” Harvey also went from baseball to softball and found the perfect mix of success and enjoyment, winning a PIAA championship in his third year.

“(Elizabeth Forward coach) Harry Rutherford talked me into it,” Harvey said. “He was coaching travel ball for the Renegades and asked me to help out. My daughter, Allie, was 12 and playing travel at the time.”

A majority of softball dads end up becoming coaches because their daughters play the game from an early age.

The same can be said for Mt. Pleasant’s Chris Brunson and Denny Little at Penn-Trafford, household names in area softball coaching circles.

Both were talented baseball players.

Like Harvey, their daughters made their way through travel and high school ball and are either playing college ball currently or have in the past.

“I have always had a defensive mindset,” said Harvey, who was a catcher and first baseman when he played at Yough. “And the game is so much faster. I love to watch men’s fastpitch softball.”

Harvey said, fundamentally, baseball and softball are the same, even though a softball field is about half the size of a baseball one, basepaths are 60 feet instead of 90 and the pitcher’s circle is 43 feet away from the plate, not 60.

“One thing is always true (about both sports),” Harvey said. “The best hitters make great adjustments in the box.”

Brunson was lured into coaching softball by yet another former baseball guy in Todd Bunner, the softball coach at Southmoreland.

While Brunson had some travel ball coaching experience, he had never coached at the high school level. He joined Bunner’s staff with the Scotties. The team won a WPIAL title in 2018.

“You coach girls differently than boys,” Brunson said. “Girls need to feel a part of the group before they will perform. Boys need to perform before you let them in the group.

“You have more small ball in softball, and softball is much easier to coach from a pitching standpoint because they don’t have as much rest time.”

Little played college baseball at Pitt and led the Panthers in batting average (.377), hits (52), home runs (8) and RBIs (39) in 1991. He said the biggest difference between coaching the sports is adjusting to coaching girls. Even girl dads aren’t prepared for the ardor and sensibilities.

“The obvious difference,” Little said. “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Girls have a completely different mindset than boys — not at all wrong, just different. I will say that girls, to me, are more selfless than boys.”

Little and Harvey referenced coach Rich Leviere of the Pittsburgh Spirit for his impact on the game.

“Coach Leviere would say it best,” Little said. “A boy has to play good to feel good, while a girl has to feel good to play good.

“Honestly, all the tears — I wasn’t used to that,” Little said, citing his biggest “culture shock” when he started coaching softball. “You’ve got disappointed tears, mad tears, performance tears and happy tears, and you’ve got to know the difference. … Softball is baseball on amphetamines. Not that I would know from experience, but I imagine they really speed a person up. Sixty-foot bases, 43-foot pitching rubber and composite bats make for an exciting game.”

Brunson agreed with the Quealys that the cheering from dugouts took some getting used to. When girls start pounding on ball buckets like they are bongos, it’s best for coaches to just tap their foot to the beat.

“The things that are allowed in softball that are taboo in baseball, like props in the dugout,” Brunson said of another key difference. “The goofiness of girls that is encouraged to keep the dugout in the game.”

Brunson was a standout baseball player (and football player) at Hempfield before he took his baseball talent to Cal (Pa.).

He later coached there as an assistant for 13 years.

“There was zero chance I thought I would be coaching softball when we were celebrating our first baseball conference championship at Cal U. in 2001,” he said.

“I love the strategy in both sports. For the average fan, it’s probably softball (that is more exciting).”

Tommy Quealy finds himself watching more fast-paced college softball games.

“The girls have so much fun,” Tommy Quealy said. “Baseball guys get upset and get down on themselves. The girls show their emotions.”

Norwin head coach Brian Mesich said the Quealys have been a welcome addition.

“They’re still getting it,” he said. “We’re coaching by committee.”

Norwin senior first baseman Emma Novotnak said their presence has been noticed.

“They want us to treat every game like a playoff game,” Novotnak said. “They keep us motivated. If we get down, they pick us back up: get in here, get that last out, get the bats going. They have really helped our hitting, with our timing and approach.”

When games are going on, Tom Quealy can’t help but glance over at the baseball field adjacent to the softball diamond on the Norwin campus.

His heart is with that program. His mind is learning the new one.

“I miss the kids,” Tom Quealy said. “But the girls are great competitors, too. They want to win just as much.”

What is interesting about the Quealys is that Leslie Quealy, wife and mother to the Toms, was a softball player at Norwin. Her late father, Don Kattic, coached the Lady Knights for about a decade, late 1980s, early 1990s.

Leslie was a pitcher.

Little, an elementary school gym teacher at Greensburg Salem, coached baseball in the past, but he said returning to that sport would be a challenge.

“I would never rule it out, but it would not be an easy transition back to baseball,” he said. “It is a very slim chance that I would coach baseball again. My goal when I finally graduate Hutchinson Elementary is to help build a college softball program into a powerhouse.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at

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