By Michael Kinney
For 21 years, Melyssa Lombardi was right next to coach Patty Gasso as she built Oklahoma into a softball powerhouse. Through 12 Women’s College World Series appearances and four championships, she was one developing dominant pitchers and staffs.
But in July 2018, Lombardi got her shot to run her own program when she took the head coaching job at Oregon. That left Gasso with a massive hole to fill at pitching coach. Something she had not had to think about for two decades.
“Well, she was my right arm for over 20 years,” Gasso said of Lombardi. “I was so happy for her because she’s been waiting for so long for the right opportunity. She wanted to have an opportunity to go to a big-time program, so everything laid out, so I was very happy for her and the opportunity. At the same time, the idea of starting over and all of that was not appealing for me because I’ve been very comfortable in our routine and so forth.”
When Gasso started to lay out all the traits she was looking for in a pitching coach, there was one name at the top of the list.
“Jennifer Rocha. Successful, experienced, no ego, good person, connectability, loyal, knowledge obviously of the craft,” Gasso said. “As soon as I knew this was going, she was immediately the number one. It was a long shot, but I was going to go for it, and I had ideas of where to go next. But I really wanted to put my emphasis on Jenn.”
Rocha played at Oklahoma from 1996-98 and was a graduate assistant until 2001. So Gasso knew exactly what type of person she was trying to hire.
At the time of Lombardi’s departure, Rocha was working as the associate head coach and pitching coach at Florida. In her 13 years with the Gators, she had built a stellar reputation and was part of the coaching staff that won national championships in 2014 and ’15. Gasso knew prying her out of Gainesville would not be an easy chore.
“Just her history, where she’s at, her success, her connection with Tim (Walton). It just seemed like she was very grounded there,” Gasso said. “You never know until you ask, so I just kind of beat around the bush a little bit just to see if she was interested. She wanted to hear a little bit more, so that encouraged me. When the door opened, I just got in there quick.”
Gasso’s pitch worked, and Rocha was hired as the program’s associate head coach and pitching coach on July 18.
“I think OU has always felt like home to me anyway, just being an alum of the university and having played for coach Gasso,” Rocha said. “It’s always had a comfortable feel for me. It was a family move for me, ultimately. I’ve been happy with my decision and things are going really well here.”
Rocha brings to Oklahoma her own way of handling pitchers. She has developed a style that led her to being named the 2015 NFCA Assistant Coach of the Year.
“I really just try to take what our pitchers have, what they’re good at. We have the luxury here at OU to be able to recruit the top pitchers in the country and be able to land them. They come with an excellent set of tools already,” Rocha said. “Really, I just try not to mess them up. I really just try to take their strengths and help create some consistency with that. I just try to help them understand how to use those pitches in the game and really try to take their game savvy to a new level.”
Gasso was accustomed to Lombardi, but she doesn’t see a vast difference between her and Rocha.
“You know, they’re very much alike. I think coach Lombardi is very kind of drill-oriented,” Gasso said. “I think Rocha is more hands-on and demonstrating it and so forth. So they just have different styles of teaching, but they’re both very calm, they’re not real loud and bossy or anything like that. They have the same kind of demeanor, which is what I was looking for because it works and it works with me as well as the athletes.”
The Sooners will head into the 2019 season with a much different outlook on their pitching staff. Gone are Paige Parker and Paige Lowary, who were both drafted in the first round of the 2018 National Pro Fastpitch Draft last April. They handled the overwhelming majority of the pitching duties.
Rocha’s recent staffs have relied primarily on one or two key arms. In 2018, Kelly Barnhill (29-3) and Aleshia Ocasio (23-7) combined to pitch 378 innings.
But this campaign, the Sooners are not expected to have one lead ace carrying the team. Instead, Rocha and Gasso will be looking at more of an actual staff to handle. They include recent transfer additions Giselle “G” Juarez and Shannon Saile as well as returners Parker Conrad, Mariah Lopez, Nicole Mendes and freshman Brooke Vestal.
“I feel like right now we’re truly built to be a staff. I know we had two horses that left, absolute, amazing, all-Americans that left,” Rocha said. “We really are really trying to tie things up with our staff. We have a bunch of different looks that we can show teams. I’m hoping that we’re going to be tough to prepare for because we do have so many different looks that we can throw at you. They’re going to be quality, so I’m excited about that. It’s going to be a little bit of a challenge because we do have so many options, but I’m also looking forward to the challenges that (my pitchers will face) when it’s their turn to have the ball.”
Michael Kinney is a Freelance Content Provider