Clichs are so overused in sports culture that their significance is often lost. They are tossed around so frequently by broadcasters and analysts that, when one actually sees a strong example of a defining characteristic, we assume it to be commonplace and neglect to acknowledge its worth. But certain attributions should be recognized, such as in the case of softball head coach Michelle Burrell. Burrell has achieved a great deal of success both as a player and as a coach, and it hasn’t come easily.
“I didn’t start off great,” Burrell said of her college career at the University of Maryland. “I had to work to see results. My freshman year I struggled quite a bit.”
But by the end of her four years at Maryland, Burrell had collected quite a few accolades. She finished among the career leaders in eight offensive categories and was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 50th Anniversary team in 2002.
Burrell, a native of Owego, N.Y., was not initially drawn to softball. She started playing baseball at a young age and only switched over when she had to in order to play at school.
Softball wasn’t the only sport Burrell excelled at when she was young, either.
“I knew I wanted to play a sport in college and looked at possibly playing soccer, as well,” she said.
Burrell eventually opted to play softball after high school, and when she was recruited late by Maryland, she jumped at the opportunity.
“The minute I went onto [Maryland’s] campus, I knew that was where I wanted to go,” Burrell said. “I’m from a small town, so I think I really liked the big atmosphere, as well.”
After her career as a Terrapin, Burrell stayed on as an assistant coach at her alma mater for four years before coming to the UR. And the transition from Division I to Division III coaching has been very fluid.
“I wanted to go to a place where I felt like the program would be supported and where we could compete at a high level,” the coach said. “It didn’t really matter what division.”
In her third year here as a Yellowjacket, Burrell has led UR to its first-ever national ranking, its first-ever NCAA playoff bid, two league championships and back-to-back postseason appearances.
“I really believe that what you put into something is what you will get out,” Burrell said. “We try to instill working hard and letting the girls know that, as well. They realized that, with all the work they do in the offseason and in the nontraditional season, they’ll see all the results they get out of that in the spring.”
Burrell has done more than just push her players, however. She has also earned their respect.
“I really like that she gets right to what is wrong and works on the problem directly,” senior all-conference outfielder Jess Sorrentino said. “She is also very enthusiastic about softball, which I feel makes us all more motivated.”
Last year, Burrell’s hard work paid off when she and her staff were named Coaching Staff of the Year by both the Liberty League and the University Athletic Association.
This year, the ‘Jackets sit at 17-10 with six games remaining in regular season play and are currently ranked 23rd nationally according to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll.
And while Burrell’s success story may seem like nothing more than a list of overused adages in sports culture, that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from her example and benefit from her experience. Because, after all, while innate ability is always useful, there really is no substitute for hard work.
Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.