Gorches: Lopez, Iussig return to coaching ranks
By Steve T. Gorches 648-3141 or firstname.lastname@example.org March 22, 2012 11:26PM
Merrillville coach Dave Lopez, with senior catcher Nicole Anderson (left), hits balls to the infield during softball practice at Merrillville (Ind.) High School Tuesday March 20, 2012. This is Lopez's first year at Merrillville, having previously coached at Griffith. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Post-Tribune preseason top 10
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Updated: April 24, 2012 8:22AM
MERRILLVILLE — Two familar faces in Northwest Indiana softball have returned to the dugout — and third-base coaching box.
In fact, they will be facing each other Monday, barring a change in the region’s beautiful weather so far.
Pete Iussig returns to Lowell after a one-year “retirement” while former Griffith assistant and North Newton head coach Dave Lopez is back as the head coach of Merrillville — the third Pirates coach in four years.
Lowell plays at Merrillville on Monday in a game between two teams in transition.
These two coaches coming back has this inquisitive reporter asking both, “Why?”
In Lowell, the “opportunity presented itself” as Iussig put it. The previous coach was unable to continue due to logistics, so why not have the guy who led the team for 21 years come back?
“I missed it,” he said. “I went to a few games last year and definitely missed it.”
It helps that he will have a couple familar faces on his coaching staff — former standouts at Lowell in Kelly Johnson and Catherine Allert, who will join the staff when her semester is over at Indiana University.
Iussig has taken the Devils to the state finals twice (2007 and 2009), but he admits this year probably won’t be trip No. 3.
“We’re sort of young — I don’t know exactly what to expect,” he said. “We have some juniors, but it never goes the way you think. I’d like people to say we’re the most improved team at the end.”
He still has a sense of humor when it comes to evaluating his team. In his reply to my usual request for preview information, under the general outlook for the season he said, “Have some questions concerning our pitching, defense and hitting. Aside from that we should be fine.”
Funny, but the same might be said by Lopez about the Pirates. In fact, I asked Lopez if he knew what he was in for taking over a program that has fallen so far from past glory. He admitted when he was offered the job just three days after interviewing for it, he needed a couple days to think it over and ask himself, “What am I getting into?”
Since the Pirates won their second state title back in 1997, under the tutelage of Bob Bergeson, the program has gradually deteriorated into the worst in the Duneland Conference.
Sorry if that’s harsh, but there’s just no subtle way to put it. Over the last four years Merrillville has won eight games combined. Even Valparaiso, which had also fallen on hard times, has put together a couple seasons of between seven and 10 wins, not one, two or three that has become Merrillville’s norm.
Lopez has the background to turn things around, but he knows it won’t be easy. He compares it to his four years at North Newton (1992-95) when he helped form the program.
“You’re starting from scratch because you need to get them in a whole different mindset,” Lopez said about his challenge. “This team was fundamentally terrible. Errors killed them last season.”
After so many years in softball and baseball — whether it was 11 years as the Griffith assistant or as vice president of Schererville Baseball — Lopez has no reason to hold back. He’s going to tell the painful truth to everyone — this reporter, the Merrillville administration, the players and their parents.
“Softball is a different breed than other sports,” he said. “It’s a parent-oriented sport with summer leagues and so many travel teams. If you’re playing high school ball, you should be in travel ball too if you’re serious about the game.”
I had a previous Merrillville softball coach lament the lack of travel ball players in the program and how things won’t get better until that changes. Lopez said it’s too late for the 13 freshmen on JV to join travel teams, but they will next year if they want to get better.
Lopez has one of his former Griffith players as the JV coach in Kaitlyn O’Brien, who can already see a difference.
“The kids were so intimidated and weren’t having fun,” she said about the beginning of practices. “It’s a complete 180 from when we started.”
Lopez added, “Teachers are telling me the kids are excited.”
The players understand that Lopez has years of knowledge and has the best intentions of the program in mind while pushing them.
“He knows what he’s talking about,” sophomore Mandy Banashak said. “He keeps his cool with us, like he’s coached girls before.”
Senior Mercedes McClendon has played under two previous coaches, and she sees a big difference with Lopez.
“The drills he takes us through are so helpful,” she said. “Hitting wise, we’ve improved so much. He has a drill for everything.”
Will Merrillville get back to its glory days under Lopez? Only time will tell. Right now his simple goal is for the Pirates to finish above .500. Compared to recent years, that would be a monumental upgrade.