Struggling to recover from COVID-19, Cass Cefolo wasn't in much of a mood to celebrate her birthday.
Then she was informed that she'd been nominated by multiple players at her softball program, the Morris County Belles in New Jersey, for the 2020 TrueSport SportsEngine Coach Excellence Award. Despite thousands of entrants, Cass finished as a finalist for this year's award.
"It was definitely a surprise," Cass says. "Opening up the email on my birthday was really nice. That was a nice little bonus, and it definitely made me feel really, really good."
Cass played her high school softball career at Hanover Park, where she was a four-year starter and standout at shortstop and third base. In all four years, she led her team in both batting average and home runs. She also starred for the Morris County Belles. Recruited by Division I programs, Cass headed to Caldwell University, where she hit .342 as a freshman and.307 as a sophomore.
But Cass always planned to coach, something she started doing even as a teenager, helping others improve as a hitter and fielder. In fact, a negative personal experience with a coach inspired her to return and coach with the Belles.
"I wanted to be everything that he wasn't," Cass says of the negative coach.
That's why Cass focuses on being positive and believing that her role is to do more than just teach her players about the sport.
"I teach them life lessons, integrity, discipline and so much more," she says. "I coach to teach these girls success both on and off the field. I coach because I care. When I'm on the field with those girls, it's the most alive I've ever felt because just knowing that I can make a difference."
With the Belles, she took over the U-18 team, which had some talent but was not a cohesive team. She set high expectations, and she focused on fundamentals. As the season progressed, the players and the team, overall, improved. That all seven seniors got recruited to play college softball is one of her proudest moments as a coach.
"Everything just kind of fell into place," Cass says, "so that was really, really exciting."
But COVID has presented challenges for her and other coaches. Parents of her players were reaching out to her, asking for any advice on how to help motivate and encourage the young athletes.
"When COVID got everything shut down, I realized that the girls' mental health was just declining across the board," she says. "I had parents texting me, 'I can't get them out of bed.' "
Cass came up with a plan, holding Zoom workouts twice a week for all the program's athletes, regardless of age, and starting to hold online practices. She also started assigning papers for them to write, asking them why they love softball and what they miss about playing the game.
"I kept them busy, and I think they really enjoyed that," she says. "For my younger girls, there was an online tournament. I've never seen anything like it before, but it definitely brought the teams together!"
Cass is proud of the work she's done over the last two-plus years as the club's president, and she is striving to continue to help the players in creating a positive culture.
"I want to leave behind a strong organization," she says. "I want my legacy to be leading these girls to success on and off the field. Someone who genuinely cares about these girls."