In early April, the Niagara University softball team was reeling with a 3-21 record. And there was widespread discontent among players about the way they were being treated by first-year coach Ellie Chan.
When Chan stepped down under fire, veteran pitching coach Larry Puzan was called on to take over on an interim basis. The result was a sharp turnaround that left the players singing his praises, with many hoping he will wind up being hired full time.
“I hated the games when Ellie coached,” senior third baseman Gabrielle Lustrinelli said. “I thought I was going to leave Niagara hating the school.”
Complaints from players and parents prompted Niagara Athletic Director Tom Crowley to suspend Chan pending an investigation. Chan chose to resign, he said. Puzan was put in charge, and the midseason disruption galvanized the Purple Eagles.
“The rain cloud over our head was gone,” Lustrinelli said.
Niagara went 13-9 the rest of the way, winning a school-record nine consecutive games at one point and qualifying for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference playoffs for the first time since 2010. Jennifer Sansano, a St. Bonaventure transfer whom Puzan had been instrumental in recruiting, became the first player in the history of the Niagara softball program to win the MAAC Pitcher of the Year Award.
The Purple Eagles also rediscovered their joy for the game in the second half of the season.
“The joke was that I didn’t know two of the girls on the team had any teeth,” said David Wayne, the father of senior shortstop Alexis Wayne. “I’d never seen them smile.”
The Niagara softball program was a model of consistency and modest success for 22 seasons under coach Al Dirschberger. The Purple Eagles went to the MAAC playoffs four times and won a conference championship in 1998. They didn’t win as often as some of their rivals, but with Puzan as Dirschberger’s right-hand man, the program fostered a family atmosphere the players relished.
“We always prided ourselves on how tight our program was, with the community we created,” said Melissa Markle, a 2009 graduate. “Our alumni, our parents, we are knee-deep in Niagara softball from March until May.”
Last May, the Niagara Athletics Department announced that Dirschberger would be retiring to spend more time with his family. In truth, Niagara had decided it needed a full-time softball coach but wasn’t offering a high enough salary for Dirschberger, who already had a full-time job. A few weeks later, he joined the Canisius College staff as an assistant.
Dirschberger suggested that Niagara keep the head coaching job part time and hire Puzan as a full-time assistant, following a model set by MAAC peers Marist and Siena. When that proposal was rejected, he recommended Puzan and another assistant, Felicia (Coffey) Kinney, to be his replacements. Kinney, a former player with one year of coaching experience, received an interview. Puzan, who is also the athletic director and girls’ basketball coach at Niagara Catholic Junior-Senior High School, did not.
Feuds with players
In July, Niagara hired Chan, a Depew native who had a standout playing career at D’Youville College and Canisius and had coached at Erie Community College, D’Youville, Florida Tech and Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina.
Markle had played for Chan at the Empire State Games and initially supported her hiring. Markle called the current players and told them they would love playing for their new coach. Months later, she called them back and apologized for unintentionally misleading them.
Lustrinelli, Wayne, Markle and two other sources who asked to remain anonymous accused Chan of alienating the players in a variety of ways. Among the alleged offenses were personal comments about players, threats to revoke players’ scholarships, stripping the team’s three seniors of their captain positions and telling underclassmen not to follow their lead, and doling out insufficient funds for meals on road trips.
There was also what David Wayne described as “the fiasco in Florida.” While he and several other parents were staying with the team during their spring trip, Chan left the team following games to spend evenings with her husband. On one occasion, two Niagara players had to drive equipment vans to a game. “It was unconscionable that she wasn’t there,” David Wayne said. “She sold it as a team-bonding trip.”
“Mostly it was things that were away from the field,” Lustrinelli said. “We’re OK with a hard coach. I’ve had hard coaches all my life. This wasn’t about playing time or anything like that. It was about off-the-field things.”
“It wasn’t the way our girls were used to being treated,” Markle said. “The girls were miserable. They weren’t enjoying themselves. To think there were going to be seniors leaving with a bad taste in their mouth was devastating.”
Chan’s detractors say Niagara should have vetted her more thoroughly. In 2008, she resigned from Florida Tech after administrators had canceled the season in March in response to a player mutiny. Lustrinelli said one Belmont Abbey player warned a Niagara player about how difficult it was to play for Chan.
When complaints began flooding into the Niagara Athletics Department, Crowley flew home from the Final Four to address the situation. Administrators deemed the players’ concerns credible enough to suspend Chan before launching a full investigation.
Chan could not be reached to comment. On her Facebook page Monday night, she announced that she would be retiring from college coaching.
Salvaging the season
Puzan held a team meeting the night he was named interim head coach. He encouraged the players to air their grievances and then put them to rest. He recited one of Dirschberger’s old mottoes and said the Purple Eagles were going to get back to doing what worked in the past.
A win over regular season champion Marist ignited Niagara’s turnaround, and the nine-game winning streak pushed the Purple Eagles into the post-season. Sansano, who Puzan compared to the program’s all-time great pitcher, Joni Sontrop, also played a key role.
“When she stepped on the field the team knew we had a legitimate chance to win any game she was pitching,” Puzan said. “Any time a team has that kind of confidence in a pitcher, it makes you very hard to beat.”
“Our team had some great chemistry,” said Sansano, a Clarence native. “We faced a lot of adversity, and at the end of the day we came together and succeeded in our goal of making it to the MAAC championships.”
Puzan took great care to promote team chemistry. He tried not to micromanage his team, allowing players to make mistakes and empowering his assistants, Kinney and Joel Patterson, and his seniors to lead from within.
“The way Larry coached, he treated them like adults,” Wayne said. “The girls were very receptive to him, and they were playing with smiles on their faces. The knots in their stomachs were gone.”
“This is a year none of us will ever forget, not because of her, but how we came together in the end,” Lustrinelli said. “I get chills just talking about it. It was the best time of my life.”
Another new coach?
Crowley said that there will be a national search for Niagara’s next softball coach and that Puzan is welcome to apply.
“Stepping into the situation that he did, I thought Larry and the whole coaching staff did a nice job of turning the focus back onto the team and their commitment to making the MAACs,” Dirschberger said. “They did an outstanding job. Sixteen years as an assistant and stepping into a difficult situation like that should demonstrate that Larry is right for the job.”
Lustrinelli and Markle, however, believe that Puzan will not be considered, in part because he does not have a bachelor’s degree. Puzan received his associate’s degree from Niagara County Community College in 1986.
“There is nobody right now better to run that program than Larry,” Markle said. “He has the players’ respect, the parents’ respect. Larry has always been that guy in the program. You won’t find a single player that doesn’t view him as a father figure. I text Larry every Father’s Day. My heart broke when he didn’t get the job last year, and it’s breaking now that he isn’t going to get it again. It’s sickening that the university does not recognize that he is the best thing for the program.”