WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. – Williams College softball head coach Kris Herman leaves June 16 for Zagreb, Croatia. What, you didn't know that Croatia was on the Eph softball schedule in 2019?
Technically Croatia is not on the 2019 Eph softball schedule, but it is on Kris Herman's softball schedule as she will be coaching the Croatian Senior National Softball Team and the Croatian U-16 National Softball Team in the 2019 European Championships over the next six weeks.
The 2019 Senior National European Championships are being co-hosted by the Czech Republic and Poland. The Croatian Senior National Team opens play June 30 versus Germany. Germany is seeded 11th in the 23-team field, while Croatia is seeded 16th. The game is slated to start at 1:30 PM, which is 6:30 PM EST.
It's been a long spring and will soon be a long summer of softball for Kris Herman whose Eph team played 46 games this year (39-7), fashioned a 22-game win streak, lost just once in the Northeast, won an NCAA Regional and an NCAA Super Regional, and advanced to the NCAA DIII College World Series in Tyler, Texas, where they finished fifth.
|1999 Croatian Team (Kris Herman far rght back row)|
You could say that this upcoming six-week trip to Croatia began in 1999 because that is when Kris Herman who was then the head coach at Tufts University agreed to go to Croatia to coach and grow the sport of softball.
Herman who just completed her 32nd year of coaching college softball now owns a combined collegiate record of record of 767-338-5 (.663) with 16 years each at Tufts and Williams.
Every so often umpire Bob Milosavljevic who umpired many a Tufts softball game would ask Kris Herman if she would like to go to Croatia to teach and grow the game of softball. Milosavljevic had been traveling to Croatia for a few years and knew that coaching was a dire need for the Croatian teams. Milosavljevic umpired in the 2019 NESCAC Tournament hosted by Tufts and will be part of the Croatian team at the European Championships.
Finally, in 1999 Herman agreed. "It was a time in my life where I was saying "yes" to interesting things that were presented to me. Milo, as he was known, would ask me every so often and tell me of the trips he had been making to help the Croatian softball program get off the ground."
On her very first trip to Croatia Herman found a good number of young women in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, who were interested in learning the game, but there was no regulation field to practice on and the young women who had some prior knowledge of the game, were handicapped by not growing up with the game like the kids in the U.S. or Canada had. As Herman noted, "They did not come out of the womb knowing how to play."
"The players in Croatia do not have the experience of many of those I coached in the States, so we all worked hard together to improve our skills and our understanding of good team play," added Herman. "All of the kids and most of the parents speak English well so explaining to them what they need to do is not an issue."
Elaine Schwager, the head coach at Merrimack College, accompanied Herman that first year. They decided that before the kids could learn to play the game, they had to learn the rules. Herman and Schwager ran some practices and took the team to Antwerp, Belgium.
The Croatians had no expectations that they could win many games in Antwerp, but Herman and Schwager were excited to get the team to see the game played at a higher level. Softball is huge in both The Netherlands and Italy and those two teams have dominated the European championships for quite some time.
Herman, Schwager and the Senior National Team set off on their 20-hour bus ride to Antwerp. At every border crossing the security guards were much amused to see two Americans traveling with the Croatian team.
The 1999 Croatian team did not win many games, but they did finish sixth in the nine-team field in Antwerp. In 2001 Herman returned with Michelle Littlefield, now an assistant coach at Babson, to coach in the European Championships in Vienna, Austria, where Croatia finished seventh in a 10-team field. Ever improving the Croatian team has always impressed Herman with their passion for the game and their work rate.
|Winter practice session.|
Over the years Herman has sent instructional videos, links to watch Eph games, and other training aides to friends in Croatia and she has returned at times in the winter for indoor practice sessions to help them to continue to build their program.
Each time Herman returns to Croatia she runs into more and more young women she has coached and it is inspiring that some of them are working hard to grow the game.
In 1999 Herman stayed with Jelena Tomic and her family when Jelena was 16. Jelena now has two very talented young figure skating daughters under the age of 13. "Both of Jelena's kids are accomplished figure skaters and they are working on their triple jumps," said a much-impressed Herman.
"By far the best thing about coaching is building a team whether it is here in the U.S. or elsewhere," stated Herman. "I know every coach says it's not about the wins and losses, but it's really true. Building a team here and in Croatia is the same. It's helping people have an awareness of things outside of yourself that can lift you up in unparalleled ways, but you have to commit to the team first."
Even with all of the success the 2019 Eph team had this spring Herman knows that with some players graduating and new players coming in she will have to build a new Williams team. "Every team is different no matter how they played the year before and I just really love the team building process," Herman stated.
After the European Senior Championships Herman will get a short break and she plans to spend some time on the Croatian beaches along the Adriatic coast and then come back refreshed to Zagreb to coach the U-16 Women's National Team July 29 – August 3 when they host the European Women's U-16 Championships. "The Croatian national softball organization has built two quality fields and a clubhouse in Zagreb, where the championships will be played," remarked Herman. So many have worked hard to bring this event to Zagreb.
"There are a lot of talented athletes in the small country of Croatia." noted Herman. The recent success of the Croatian men's national soccer team in the World Cup has shown that and this is a country with a population of only about four million.
Herman got to witness the Croatians' passion for sport one year when she was picking up gear after a softball game in Zagreb and the men's national soccer team scored a goal in the World Cup.
"We were on a field surrounded by tall apartment buildings and when the goal was scored you would've thought there was an air raid," Herman said. "I think every horn in the country went off, lights flashed, and people poured into the streets to parade their flag around, some on foot, and some in cars and everyone was honking their horns incessantly."
The funds for softball in Croatia fell to almost nothing recently when the Paris 2024 Olympic committee voted not to include softball in the 2024 games.
Losing financial support hurts the development of the Croatan program long range and so does not having the chance to watch high-level softball games in person or on TV. This summer, however, the teams have the dream of Olympic play as they compete for the European spot in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Herman, however, is thankful for the opportunity to help grow the game in Croatia and for the lifelong friends she has made.
Kris Herman with some Senior & U-16 Players