Horsehide Honchos

Dec. 28, 2007

By John Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

Holy Cross baseball and its little sister, softball, come from vastly different athletic traditions. Baseball, once crowned at the palace dance, has sashayed with the sport's royalty and enjoys a fascinating 117 year history. Softball, 23 years old, is still looking for its first big date.

The Crusaders have cultivated more than 75 major leaguers. Indeed, the Cleveland Indians may have been named in honor of Louis Sockalexis of the Penobscot tribe, the first inductee into the Varsity Club's Hall of Fame. Jack Barry, the College's longest serving coach (40 seasons), played for Connie Mack's famed $100,000 infield and later managed and played for the Red Sox. He hung out with Babe Ruth, who considered Barry a big brother. Barry's 1952 team won the NCAA Championship. The hardball lore is bountiful.

Softball, though, remains Cinderella before the Ball.

However, baseball and softball walk hand-in-hand in this era. There is little disparity between them. The men and women are searching for athletic respectability to accompany their academic acumen. Holy Cross tends to 27 varsity sports while competing largely in the Patriot League--which John Feinstein's book title aptly describes as "The Last Amateurs." Contemporary press releases crow about Holy Cross having 20 teams with a 100 percent graduation rate and 12 teams with a perfect NCAA (1,000) Academic Progress Report. Students playing baseball and softball are true scholar-athletes, receiving only need-based financial aid like everyone else.

 

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Enter Greg DiCenzo and Brian Claypool, respectively the new Crusader baseball and softball coaches. Their challenges are equally and painfully obvious. Last season, the baseball team was 12-23; the softball team was 5-38.

DiCenzo and Claypool possess similar attributes. They are self-made achievers in their early 30s. They have played sports with passion and gotten very dirty while learning the nitty-gritty of the games they adore. They are self-starting, non-stop workers. They value education first and foremost. And, thankfully, they are eternal optimists.

 

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You would have to go back some 88 seasons--to baseball Hall of Famer Jesse "The Crab" Burkett--to find the last Crusader coach hired who was not an alum or assistant.

Associate Athletic Director Rose Shea '87 fielded more than 100 job applications for head baseball coach. Greg DiCenzo, the overwhelming choice of Shea and her team of campus consultants, quickly won the stamp of approval from Athletic Director Dick Regan '76.

DiCenzo has what the College needs: a strong background in coaching, with an emphasis on pitching and a special talent for recruiting. In his bat-bag, he also totes two master's degrees--in education and administration--from his alma mater St. Lawrence University of Canton, N.Y.

"We were struck by his focus on the academic success of his players," says Shea. "He relates well to prospects and their parents. He knows Holy Cross is not a pro baseball factory. He understands the Holy Cross way."

DiCenzo also comprehends that Holy Cross hasn't made the NCAA tournament in 30 years. Getting back there, he vows, is his primary goal. DiCenzo is well-prepared for the task. He is a sports devotee from Duxbury, a tony seaside town a little upwind from Plymouth Rock. In high school, DiCenzo played soccer for the incomparable Frosty Cass; he played hoops and excelled as a crafty lefty and slick first baseman in baseball. He still wishes he had time for hockey. He'd play tiddlywinks in a blizzard.

In college, DiCenzo added football to his repertoire. He joined the St. Lawrence Saints, emerging as an all-conference kicker and punter. How good was he? Suffice it to point out that DiCenzo booted a 49-yard field goal against Union College. His baseball mentor became Dr. Tom Fay, now 36 years at the Saints' helm.

He is a man in perpetual motion. DiCenzo played football and baseball while earning his bachelor of science degree in 1998. He continued to play football (on a medical waiver) and coached baseball while receiving his first master's degree in 2000. DiCenzo served as interim head baseball coach while winding up his second master's in 2002. During his four-year pursuit of two master's degrees, he taught physical education full time at the local high school. And, on autumnal Sundays, DiCenzo would drive seven hours back home to play football for the semipro Quincy Granite.

That kind of energy and determination impressed Northeastern University where he served five years as a pitching coach and top-flight recruiting coordinator. His skills as a closer became apparent as he signed three young guns who were selected in the Major League draft. In his inaugural season, the Huskies won the first of three straight American East titles (2003, 2004 and 2005) and advanced to the NCAA tournament.

In the summertime, DiCenzo coached in the Cape Cod League for the Falmouth Commodores, helping to develop the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox) and Jensen Lewis (Indians).

At Northeastern, DiCenzo learned how to construct a program as a recruiter with a keen eye for talent, as a practice organizer, as a game strategist.

"I'm recruiting kids for biology, not the Red Sox. I know that, but I want to win now," he says.

His first move was a wise one. Instead of traveling during an abbreviated fall season, DiCenzo kept his Crusaders at home. He held a series of intra-squad scrimmages.

"That allowed me to evaluate our talent better. You can teach much more during a controlled scrimmage. We weren't worrying about the other guys, but concentrating on ourselves," DiCenzo explains.

"Our objective is to challenge and push each other and to create energy amongst ourselves," he adds.

Turning the program around will take time, DiCenzo concedes. "Right now, my guys are on campus--in the library, in the cafeteria, on the field. I want them to know I care about them and this season. We have a great school in a great league playing in the best college park in New England. We will draw smart athletes with a real work ethic and the winning will come."

 

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Brian Claypool loves softball so much he married his star catcher. He looked at her glossy .358 batting average and her flossy .984 fielding percentage as a senior and fell head-over-heels.

In 2003, Claypool landed his first head coaching job at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, formerly known as North Adams State. That season he garnered Coach of the Year honors in the Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference (MASCAC). The Trailblazers were led by a 5-foot-2-inch dynamo named Courtney Tebo, a soccer and softball standout at Douglas (Mass.) High.

The following season, Tebo was selected as the MASCAC Player of the Year. Her coach was duly impressed. In 2005, Claypool took a step up the career ladder, coaching Hartwick College, just up the road from Cooperstown in New York. Things were looking up. His Pittsburg Steelers were marching toward the Super Bowl and Brian was courting Tebo.

"For Super Bowl Sunday, Courtney arranged a surprise 30th birthday party for me and invited family and friends. Actually, I was turning 29, but any excuse for a party works," quips Claypool.

The Steelers won the Super Bowl. Overjoyed Brian proposed to Tebo on the spot. And the rest is history.

Now Claypool will direct the fortunes of the Lady Crusaders--with a little help from his bride. Courtney Tebo Claypool will serve as a volunteer aide-de-camp when she isn't working as a special needs teacher at a nearby Sutton (Mass.) day care.

How did Claypool wend his way to Worcester from the College of Wooster in Ohio, where he received his degree in 1999? He took an interesting and tough path and hit more than a few bumps.

 

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A strapping 6-foot-1-inch, 203-pounder, Claypool was a Western Pennsylvania all-star as a slugging first baseman for Kiski Area High School just outside Pittsburgh. An only child, he grew up in Leechburg as an avid fan of the Pirates, Penguins and Steelers--and as an admirer of ballbashers such as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire.

His hitting prowess, especially in American Legion ball, drew admiration. A coach from the College of Wooster spotted him at a clinic and convinced him he would play right away for the Division III title contender and receive a great education. His parents, Cliff and Linda Claypool, liked the fact that Wooster was a reasonable drive from their home

The college had a lineup of sluggers. In 1997, Wooster walloped 104 dingers in 52 games, including 17 in one doubleheader. The Fightin' Scots finished second in the NCAA tournament. During Claypool's senior year, sidelined with a back injury, he volunteered to help the school's upstart softball team. There, Claypool caught the softball bug.

After graduating, he spent a year counseling in an Akron, Ohio, juvenile offenders' program. Claypool, however, missed playing and coaching. He knew he wanted to do something that involved sports. The psychology major enrolled at Springfield (Mass.) College to work toward a master's degree in sports psychology and to coach softball as a graduate assistant.

His hard work and desire should not be minimized. Claypool helped coach a team that went 38-10 and won the ECAC championship; he taught as a physical education instructor; and he lectured in athletic counseling. In the summertime, Claypool did an internship at Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Florida, learning the guru's techniques of performance enhancement. Later, while coaching up in North Adams, he would work at the local YMCA and do some bouncing at a Williamstown bar. Anything to survive while pursuing his dreams.

His plans hit a sudden snag. Claypool appeared to be turning the Hartwick College softball program around. Due to financial strains, however, in May 2006, the college pulled the plug on softball and seven other sports. Claypool and his bride decided to marry and settle in the Worcester area, where they also played co-ed softball. Brian worked as a Verizon Wireless sales rep while searching for another coaching opportunity. Last season, he volunteered to lend a hand in coaching the Lady Crusaders.

Ann Ash Zelesky, associate athletic director, notes she had a chance to observe Claypool coach. A Massachusetts living legend as schoolgirl softball and basketball coach, Zelesky has a keen eye for talent. When a head softball job opened up, Claypool emerged as the candidate of choice.

In the fall, he began coaching in earnest. Claypool told his players that they had not reached their potential.

"We have to change our mindset," he says. "We will use performance-enhancement tools--videotapes, visualization, whatever it takes. I am addicted to challenges and believe we will improve quickly. We will broaden our recruiting. When prospects tour Holy Cross, they are blown away.''

Hopefully, the winds are shifting up on Pakachoag and so, too, are the fortunes of baseball and softball.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

 

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.