2021 Softball All-Area Coach of the Year: Freedom's Michele Laubach
Northampton softball coach Kristy Henritzy, left, and Freedom softball coach Michele Laubach. (Ash Bailot / The Morning Call)
Normally in deciding softball coach of the year, you look to the coach’s performance from the official start of practice in March to the end of the season in late May or June.
But in the case of Freedom’s Michele Laubach, this year’s Morning Call coach of the year, it’s her efforts over the past 12 months that need to be taken into consideration.
As restrictions and shutdowns from the pandemic abounded last summer, and kids had nowhere to go, Laubach took the initiative to get the softball players who missed out on their entire 2020 scholastic seasons a chance to play for their high schools in a unique tournament that spanned three days.
She worked with her friend and Eastern Pennsylvania Conference coaching colleague Kristy Henrity of Northampton to arrange something called the Lehigh Valley High School Softball Showcase, which began at the Moore Township Recreational Center in Bath and concluded with the semifinals, finals, and a special ceremony for seniors at Coca-Cola Park.
Laubach said she received plenty of help in putting it together, but the 16-team event wouldn’t have happened without her willingness to put in the time, effort and also withstand the criticism and backlash she received from others, including many in authority, who didn’t believe any high school events should happen during the pandemic.
The tournament was considered a success in providing a measure of closure for what was lost by the softball community.
For that alone, Laubach was a coach of the year candidate, but then this spring she followed it up by guiding the Patriots to their first significant title in program history, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.
That championship sealed her selection as The Morning Call’s 2021 softball coach of the year.
“That tournament was a special memory,” Laubach said. “Being able to get the other coaches together and on board with that was a challenge, and I know that the tournament wasn’t favored by many. But it reminded me of a quote from [the late] John Lewis [a member of the U.S. House of Representatives] who once said that sometimes you have to get in necessary trouble.
“Sometimes you have to decide what’s right and that’s what you have to fight for and stick up for. I know I felt that way when we put that tournament together. It really was a team effort and a community effort and it turned out to be a beautiful thing.”
Laubach said she has a lot of ideas, and sometimes even her assistants Jack Roman and Lauren Frederick wonder how they’re going to come to fruition.
“You can get an idea but to get to that one moment can be a big process,” Laubach said. “There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work. I just felt it was all worth it, especially since Freedom got to play in the championship game against Parkland on the field at Coca-Cola Park. We provided something that might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the girls and to have our senior night there was very special.”
Parkland beat Freedom for the summer championship, but 10 months later the Patriots stunned the defending champions 3-2 in the EPC semifinals.
Freedom rallied from a 2-1 deficit with two runs in the top of the seventh, getting a clutch two-run single by Natalie Stannard. Senior pitcher Jen Slanovec, who had a brilliant EPC tournament, took it from there with a 1-2-3 inning in the bottom of the seventh and the Patriots were on to the league title game.
No late drama was needed in that one as Freedom pounded out 11 hits and got home runs from Slanovec and Brenna Ortwein and a two-run double from Matison Piripavel, and an RBI single from Stannard in a 10-0 rout of Northampton.
Slanovec, who allowed just two runs and 10 hits in three tournament games, struck out six and walked one in the win that Freedom softball teams have long waited for.
While Slanovec suffered an injury that contributed to Freedom’s loss to Whitehall in the District 11 6A semifinals, the league championship represented a breakthrough for a program that had always been in the shadows of others.
“It’s always special when you can make history and winning a league title was history for Freedom,” Laubach said. “It was our goal. We put that out there at the beginning of the season. It’s easy to say that, but it’s tough to actually make it happen. But our girls stuck with the game plan and trusted in the coaches and we were able to make it happen. It was a very special moment.”
Laubach, whose maiden name Lamon, was part of a state championship team at Central Columbia High School in 1994 and also played at Lock Haven. Her scholastic coach was Duane Ford, a District 4 coaching legend, and he instilled in her all of the values and philosophies needed to become a successful coach.
“Coaching high school sports and teaching in high school, a lot of things go on that people don’t realize,” Laubach said. “It can be very hard and difficult to manage and lead a program. So I leaned a lot on Coach Ford and he offered his advice. He was always there and he was a part of this.”
This was Laubach’s third season at Freedom and she has posted a 34-12 record in the two seasons that took place. She previously coached at Liberty and went 52-33 from 2004-2007 and among her accomplishments was having her team win the Lehigh Valley Umpires Association Sportsmanship Award.
Laubach wants her team to learn life lessons as well as softball fundamentals. She wants her players to give back to others and has had them participate in numerous charitable and community-oriented activities.
“I like teaching my kids that things in life happen and part of being a good person is to give to others,” she said. “That’s really what it’s all about. It’s about building relationships.”
Laubach went through a health scare, a tumor in her abdomen, that required surgery, and caused her to miss the start of the school year. It was an ordeal that put life in perspective.
“The girls on the team made me a video wishing me good luck and saying they were thinking about me and that’s really the important stuff,” she said. “The wins and losses come and go, but it’s those relationships that you make that stay with you.”
1994: Ed McIntyre, Easton
1996: Ed McIntyre, Easton
1997: Stan Luckenbill, Whitehall
1999: Brian Neefe, So. Lehigh
2000: Karen Buis, Nazareth
2001: Gary Miklus, Kutztown
2002: Kris Check, Salisbury and Dave Yob, Palisades
2003: Rich Mazza, Becahi, and John Eyer, Emmaus
2005: Ed McIntyre, Easton
2006: Jen Horner, Northwestern
2007: Bill Schankel, Pen Argyl
2008: Debbie Anthony, Northampton
2009: Alexis Berg-Townsend, Whitehall
2010: Glenn Reimer, Palmerton
2011: Bill Schankel, Pen Argyl
2012: Rich Giering, Liberty
2013: Bob Thomas, Catasauqua
2014: Rich Kessler, Bangor
2015: Sam Corrado, Liberty and Jerry Lewis, Notre Dame-Green Pond
2016: Barry Search, Parkland
2017: Rich Kessler, Bangor
2018: Kristy Henritzy, Northampton
2019: Barry Search, Parkland
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