Lady Lightning program crackles with pride, determination

Pick a fastpitch strategy with a bit of nuance – ways to defend against the bunt, for example – and the Internet will shower you with dozens of links and options.

But those theories barely came at a trickle when John Corn first got serious about coaching the sport nearly 20 years ago. And while a lack of sophisticated thinking was evident in softball scene, even more incriminating was the average coach’s approach with the athlete. As Corn began to assemble a foundation for his own club, which became the Lady Lightning program out of North Carolina, it was on that last short-sighted issue that he felt needed some laser-guided attention.

“When I first got into it, the way they were teaching the girls to play was very elementary. It was ‘just catch the ball and throw everything to first,’ and I felt like the girls had a capacity to play the game at a higher speed,” said Corn, who coaches the 18u Gold Lady Lightning squad that has firmly established itself in the Triple Crown top 25 rankings over several years. “There just wasn’t anybody teaching that. It was like we were coddling the girls, and on the boys side with baseball, we were always challenging them to be better, move faster, do things harder.

“My approach was, girls should be able to do the same things as close as they possibly can, with the skill set they have. Why not teach them and see if they can? You don’t know if you don’t try. I took my limited background in baseball (one year of college) and brought more of a baseball philosophy to a girls sport when I was asked to get involved.”

Shane Sherlund, another coach for the 18’s, remembers when his daughter caught static for pursuing opportunities within the sport. Girls sports were seen in some circles as a curiosity, and not appreciated for the avenues that opened up for accomplished athletes.

“In high school, if my daughter had to miss school during the week, the counselors didn’t understand why she needed to miss school,” Sherlund said. “The teachers would push back, saying you’ll fall behind in school, and it took a while for them to realize she was onto something. She basically had her scholarship in hand, she knew where she was going to school, and there were certain things she had to do to maintain that situation. In Texas and California, girls had a better model to work from.”

Today, the Lady Lightning rumbles through tournaments with national flagship teams in 12u, 14u, 16u and 18u, and there are more than 20 other teams under the banner that compete in their own right as well as develop players who move up when the timing is right and also work to earn scholarships. Corn began coaching in 1999 after a group of parents and players asked him to consider running a travel team, and by 2005 his eyes were on the horizon, looking for interesting matchups and ways to help his players evolve.

“Around then I was tinkering with qualifying for ASA (nationals), because no one in our area was doing it. I wanted to be the guy who was different; if there was a good tournament in Alaska, I want to go,” Corn said. “I want to know what else is out there. We failed miserably at first. In 2013, we won 21 straight games, and that was a milestone year. We went to PGF, took ninth in back-to-back (nationals). If you look at the TCS rankings, we’re in a mix of about 20 programs, and for us to be in that mix, that’s good company for a team that comes from an area with very few great players.”

The Lady Lightning does have a persistent way, however, of funneling players to some of the top NCAA programs around. Corn had the idea about eight years ago to do some dedicated team building retreats that included keynote speakers, demanding workouts and chances for players to get comfortable with each other – working on the ground floor of what a player needs to see and feel to perform in competition.

Put that kind of mentally tough athlete on a roster with others having the same approach, and you begin to grasp how the Lady Lightning make impacts on brackets around the country.

“That was one of the things I really loved about Lady Lightning; we were able to naturally come together as a team, even though we had the individual goal of getting recruited. Our chemistry and how well we got along was a big deal, how we helped each other out,” said Emily Heimberger, a junior utility player for Mississippi State who played for Corn. “We’d do bonding activities, take a trip every year where we learned more about each other, built the teamwork, and John did a great job of emphasizing that. We never had problems with selfishness; we played as one unit.

“He had high expectations, but I thought it was great. Those expectations shaped us into the well-rounded players and people we became. It can be difficult making that transition from high school ball to travel organizations, but once you figure out how it works and how demanding it is, the time you have to put in … it really pays off when the goal is to get to the next level , college ball. Before I joined the Lightning, I never considered playing ball in college. Once I joined, and got a look at how hard you have to work and how intense that level is, that’s what made me realize I wanted to play in college. I loved every minute of it.”

“With John’s team, playing against girls committed to Alabama, Georgia and all that, I got an awakening about what I’d be dealing with if I wanted to keep pursuing Division I. It wasn’t a shock; it was more exciting because I’m very competitive, and this made the sport more fun, to play with girls as competitive as I was,” said senior Calyn Adams, a senior infielder/catcher for MSU. “Playing with Lady Lightning helped me realize the fitness level I needed to reach if I wanted to play in the SEC or Division I at all. Talking with some of the seniors who had committed and doing their summer workouts, sharing with me what they had to do.

“Speaking with John about being versatile and playing multiple positions makes you more appealing to a lot of coaches – that was really helpful. Also, being a smart player (is important), and John helped me there the most, understanding the game and being able to teach younger players the game. I was a pretty good player when I joined the Lightning, and when I left I was a great player because mostly of the mental skills John, the other coaches and players helped me to refine.”

Corn has a very centered, calm perspective on the hard work he must do – keeping a fastpitch club up and running in a time where players are often tugged at from rival organizations, and where even his own athletes might be tempted to jump to other places in the chase for opportunities.

The Lady Lightning certainly aren’t hurting for unique experiences, playing in the Canada Cup this summer, and taking on the Czech Republic’s national team back in February. The coaching staff knows this is what keeps the club dynamic and interesting, and a place where the phone is always ringing as 8u and 10u teams from multiple states try to get their squads on the Lady Lightning lineup.

“There are a lot of routes for kids to go, where there are financial benefits with certain programs, and one might be a cheaper route. I’m a guy that believes, if your family doesn’t have skin in the game, then why am I working so hard to get kids to find the right college to play at?” Corn said. “It’s really easy to get a Marissa Runyon (senior at Alabama) into a college. Some families put in the blood, sweat and tears to help us help the kids; others, it doesn’t matter what you do for them, and it’s like trading cars. We do everything we can to weed out the fly-by-night players, the pickup for one year player … if I get a phone call from a coach who has a player, committed to a school, needs to move up from a smaller program, asking if I have room … maybe. I try not to make any waves.

“I don’t lose a lot of sleep about who’s coming and who’s going. My philosophy has become this … I had a parent ask me, what separates your team and your program from other teams and other programs? I said, here it is … I’m going to have a tryout, and I don’t care if you show up or not. If you don’t, someone else will be there and I’ll help that kid. It’s up to you.”

And at the other end of that process, the Lady Lighting just keep coming, using their team development recipe to build rosters that continually draw interest from colleges. The program also draws attention – when they spring an upset over more well-known clubs.

“We do not have access to the most talented players in the country. For us, it’s building team chemistry and the bonds we need to be successful when we do go out to California,” Sherlund said. “It’s making sure the girls trust each other and trust the coaches, the coaches trust the players – it’s the team concept. We also challenge the girls every time we go out, all preparing for that trip.”

“We took a lot of pride in that; we had fun with (being unknown),” Heimberger said. “We’d go to any tournament out West and take pride in being a small team from North Carolina that no one’s probably heard of, and we want to go out and make a name for ourselves, that out East we can play, too.”

“A lot of people think because a team is based out of North Carolina, they won’t be as competitive or talented as a team from Texas or California, where you can play year-round,” Adams added. “From Day 1, that was something John really focused on, being fast … he would preach you have to be just as fast, and there’s no reason you can’t be. He emphasized competing, and in my years we beat a lot of really great teams. It was a lot of fun, and that was something he focused on … not settling.”