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SU softball struggling to build winning program a decade after conference switch

The members of the Syracuse softball team huddle up before taking the field against Notre Dame during a game in April.
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The members of the Syracuse softball team huddle up before taking the field against Notre Dame during a game in April.

It’s been life out of a suitcase for Jolie Gustave.

The utility player and her teammates on the Syracuse softball team have racked up almost 15,000 miles of travel this season. But the losses have tallied up too.

“We’re on our second flight back to Syracuse,” she said April 17 as the team flew back from a weekend at the University of Louisville. “We ended up getting swept, so wasn’t too good of a weekend.”

Playing a spring sport in Central New York has always required a heavy dose of travel for the softball team. But the university’s shift to a new conference almost a decade ago has put even farther away teams on their schedule. The travel costs of jetting around the Atlantic Coast Conference eat up a significant amount of the team’s budget.

“I don’t have a nice big shiny field that I can take kids to,” said fifth-year head coach Shannon Doepking. “I don’t have shiny locker rooms to take kids to. I don’t have a weight room to take kids to, right? So there’s nothing I can walk a kid to and say, like, ‘I don’t need to say words,’ like it speaks for itself.”

Doepking also said the strain on the budget means less money for amenities that can draw in big-time talent. And outfielder Paris Woods said the constant back and forth makes it tougher for the athletes to stay at the top of their game.

“I mean, you are spending a lot of time in the airports; you’re missing a lot of class,” Woods said. "We have 6 a.m. weights… or we’re up at 6 a.m. for weights every morning when we are home.”

 Paris Woods, a senior who transferred to Syracuse in 2020, rounds third base in a 2021 game against Charlotte.
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Paris Woods, a senior who transferred to Syracuse in 2020, rounds third base in a 2021 game against Charlotte.

When Syracuse competed in the Big East, it made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2010 to 2012, including two conference titles. But since SU switched to the ACC in 2013, they haven’t made the tournament. Throughout that time frame they’ve been consistently facing tougher teams that are farther away than before.

“To put us on a plane most of our trips is so expensive compared to being able to get on a bus,” Doepking said.

The more of that budget that goes towards travel, the less the program can use on facility upgrades and better equipment for the players. Add in that the team can’t play home games until April due to the snow and it becomes a unique challenge to lure top recruits to Syracuse.

”It is all personality, it is all a relationship that you build, because you can't be in front of them,” Doepking said. “You can't bring them on campus.”

If winning wasn’t already hard enough, the program is now under a microscope. A Daily Orange story last year quoted three former players that accused Doepking of verbal abuse and hazing. The article caught the team off guard.

“We were all just like very shocked,” Casares-Maher said. “Everyone was hurt by it.”

 Head coach Shannon Doepking celebrates with her players after clinching an ACC Tournament berth in 2021.
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Head coach Shannon Doepking celebrates with her players after clinching an ACC Tournament berth in 2021.

The article claims Doepking made inappropriate jokes about players being harassed and allegedly commented about their physical appearances. But Doepking maintains she has nothing to hide.

“If you want to get a view of my program, you can come anytime you want,” Doepking said. “Come sit in my dugout, come on the road with us. To write a story about a bunch of kids that got kicked off a team… I mean, it's like asking somebody who gets fired, like, what do you think of your boss who just fired you?”

The Daily Orange also quoted a Syracuse athletics department official who expressed his confidence that Doepking was moving the program in the right direction. But current player Woods says since the article, she’s noticed her coach is taking extra care to be even more supportive to the team.

“If there is something that she might have said that if it came off weird, which it never usually does,” Woods said, “just being like, I just care about you as a person, as a player.”

Casares-Maher, in her fifth season at SU, says the players have grown closer over her years with the team.

 Neli Casares-Maher, Syracuse's fifth-year shortstop, fields a ground ball during an ACC matchup against Duke.
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Neli Casares-Maher, Syracuse's fifth-year shortstop, fields a ground ball during an ACC matchup against Duke.

“From my freshman year, I didn’t feel as comfortable as I do now,” Casares-Maher said. “I love every single person on this team and I'd do anything for them on and off the field.”

This weekend, the team gets a reprieve from planes. They will face North Carolina on the Orange’s home turf. They need to win all three games against the Tar Heels to have a shot at an ACC title. But Syracuse hasn’t won even a single game in the annual tournament in five appearances.

“I would never have taken the job if I thought like you couldn't win softball games here,” Doepking said. “Do I think that is a challenge? Yeah. 100%."

Last year, Syracuse did manage to win two out of three games against UNC. But winning all three would be the first time the Orange have ever swept the Tar Heels in a series. The first pitch Friday is at three o’clock.