Certain names become synonymous with the institutions they work at, to the point that to talk about one implies the other. The late Pat Summitt is inextricably entwined with the University of Tennessee; Jerry York has the same connection to Boston College, as does the late John Wooden and UCLA.
For a smaller institution like American International College, it is just as possible to have that name that transcends just the sport they are associated with to become the person who represents the athletic department or the institution as a whole, and for the Yellow Jackets that name is Judy Groff, a legendary coach and administrator who spent 43 seasons at the institution, founding a softball program which plays on a field bearing her name and setting up the institution to be able to have numerous successful women’s athletic programs.
From The Beginning
Groff grew up in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, and a love of sports was something she had from a young age; even growing up in the 1950s, she had the opportunity to play competitively as Lancaster County offered field hockey and tennis for girls and had an organized county championship, which she played. She even won a title, and remembers getting the same parade the boys teams did.
“We were on the fire trucks just like the men,” she said. “It was very competitive where I was…we were the county champions in field hockey for years, and I was very fortunate growing up in a competitive atmosphere.
At the same time, she recounts not having every opportunity she wanted.
“I tried to go into the Little League because I was quite good…and they rejected to have me on the team because I was a woman,” she said of the local church-sponsored league, noting that her father was ready to fight for her to be able to play, especially as softball was not available at the time. “I didn’t even know what a softball was because I played hardball,” she said.
Her love of sports led her to study physical education at West Chester and then connected her to the Pioneer Valley, as she obtained a master’s degree at Springfield College and wanted to take the next step there as well.
“I got the job at AIC so I could continue studying for my doctorate, but then I realized I really didn’t want administration.”
Founding A Program
Softball might have been the program she built, but it was not the first choice for Groff on State Street.
“I tried to start a field hockey program, but it took so many people, and there weren’t that many women around who played field hockey, and there seemed to be some interest in softball, and because I liked competition, I started softball.”
That was in 1969, well before the founding of the Northeast-10 or before the NCAA sanctioned women’s sports. Groff had to find that competition wherever she could.
“It was hard to find competition because we played Division I schools,” Groff said. “I was playing UConn and UMass and Boston College because there were no Division III schools that played softball.”
That was not to say that there was not softball in the area, and local teams became Groff’s first connection, including Donna Coombs, now an AIC Hall of Famer herself. That became critical because of a disadvantage that AIC had.
“All the schools I was playing had phys. ed majors and didn’t have to recruit because the talent was already at the college,” Groff noted.
She also had help, from another future AIC and NE10 Hall of Famer in Milt Piepul, the legendary football coach and athletic director at AIC, who “taught me how to recruit,” as Groff put it.
Doing It All
In 1974, Groff added another title to her list: head volleyball coach, as she founded AIC’s second varsity women’s program.
It was not as if Groff had only coached softball in those first five years; she recounts among her duties teaching, running the College’s intramural programs as well as a horseback riding program that she said at one point had over 50 students.
“When I left the school, I think four people there are doing my job now,” she laughed.
Still, in spite of that and in spite of having no real volleyball experience, when the opportunity came, she took it.
“A bunch of girls came to me and wanted to start a volleyball team and I thought, ‘Why not?’ because volleyball was a relatively new sport at that time because it had just gone into the Olympics.”
Both softball and volleyball had success in the 1970s under Groff; the latter went 64-32 from 1974-1979 and her softball squad earned a bid to the first AIAW National Championship, although financial limitations prevented the team from being able to make it. Still, they went 17-3 in 1978 and 17-2 in 1979.
But as the calendar flipped from the 70s to the 80s, there were two more changes that set up Groff and her programs for unprecedented success.
Toward The Top
Groff is synonymous with AIC athletics, but the person she considers synonymous with her joined the softball staff in 1979: Bill Bedard, her assistant coach for over three decades.
Bedard’s brother Richard was the baseball coach at AIC at the time, and Bill was considered an elite hitting instructor, an area that she needed assistance in.
“I didn’t know that much about hitting and that was his specialty…he became very interested because he found that the women wanted to learn more than the men,” she said, adding, “the women were anxious to learn.”
Around that time, the NCAA began sanctioning women’s championships, holding the first such events in the fall of 1981. All of AIC’s women’s teams joined the NCAA, and the NE10 as well.
Those changes set the stage for unparalleled success. On the volleyball court, Groff’s squads won 18 or more games every season in the 1980s; the 1981 campaign, the last in the AIAW, saw the team win 33, still a College record.
In softball, the team had even larger success. With five consecutive regular season titles from 1985-89, the team reached the NCAA Tournament three times in the 80s, with a pair of players – Shelly Pfiel and Lisa Barnabei – earning All-American honors in 1984 and 1989, respectively. Groff herself was regional coach of the year in 1989.
Her recruiting acumen, sharpened over the prior decade, was another key to success.
“One of the things I always stressed was finding the right person for our school and not just going after talent…many times, I would say to a kid, ‘You don’t belong here,’” she said.
A Decade Of Greatness
If the 80s were the start of something special, it was the 90s that cemented Groff’s legacy as a legend on the diamond.
Things had changed in the 20 years since Groff had arrived on State Street, and the demands on coaches and programs had never been higher. That led her to step back from volleyball after the 1988 season with a 272-169 mark, still the most wins in program history.
“I found at that time that you had to have a fall softball schedule, and so I’d be running to the games and scheduling games around each other so I could be at both of them and it got to be too much,” she said, adding, “I would go home at nights at 11:30…I think I figured my salary to twenty-five cents an hour.”
It was at this time that the softball program really took off. From 1989 to 1999, AIC reached the NCAA Regionals nine times. Among the players that came to AIC were Krissy MacLean, Carolyn McGown, Renee LeClerc, and Ravella Gericke, and in 1996 and 1997 the team had its most magical run, reaching the College World Series with back-to-back regional titles. Three times in four seasons from 1995-98, Groff won NE10 Coach of the Year, giving her six total titles after taking those honors in 1985, 1987, and 1989 as well.
By the time the run of success finally ended in 2003, and she earned her seventh NE10 Coach of the Year honor, Groff had racked up incredible numbers. From 1984 through 2003, the team only fell short of 30 wins twice; in the 1008 games over that stretch, the team went 663-342-3, a .659 winning percentage.
By the 2003 season, Groff had been the softball coach for three and a half decades. It was an unprecedented run, and as it continued, the kinds of awards that began to flow in were the type usually reserved for those who had filled out their final lineup cards.
She earned selection into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2007, but
perhaps the most recognizable honor was the year before, when Vincent Maniaci, who became the College’s President in 2006, named the field after Groff. It was an honor, although not one she actively sought.
“Vince came on and he called me to the office and said ‘I was thinking about having this,’ and I said, ‘Fine,’” Groff said. “I’m not big on harping on or telling people about the awards,” she added.
Instead, she kept on recruiting, coaching, and working as an administrator at the College, and she had one more big run in her as the sixth different decade she coached in began. The 2010 iteration of the Yellow Jackets finished sixth in the NE10, but then made a run to the conference final, stunning a nationally-ranked New Haven team on their own field in the process.
“We went extra innings the game before, and that’s what killed us, that and the rain,” Groff said. The team’s loss to Southern Connecticut was its fifth game in three days and the second of the day after a nine-inning stunner of the Adelphi Panthers.
The following summer, Groff announced that 2011 would be the last one for her behind the bench. She ultimately retired with 974 wins as a softball coach and, coupled with the 272 from volleyball, is the only coach at AIC with over 1,000 wins, ending at 1,246 in total. Only one other coach – Gary Wright, the longtime ice hockey leader who came to AIC in 1984 and coached through 2016, and for a few seasons also led the golf program – in the history of AIC even reached 1,000 total games, never mind wins.
She was subsequently inducted into AIC’s Hall of Fame that fall, and then into the NE10 Hall of Fame in 2012. She earned yet another honor in 2019, when her 1996-97 squads were named the second team to be inducted into AIC’s Hall of Fame.
A Legacy of Success
A lot changes in 43 years. Groff began at AIC before the first human set foot on the moon, and ended in an era where anyone could watch a game played at Judy Groff Field from anywhere in the world on a computer. From the two programs she started, AIC’s varsity women’s sports offering stood at nine when she retired – including the 1996 introduction of the field hockey program she had once wanted to begin decades prior – and now stands at 12.
“I think it’s terrific that women have all these chances and opportunity that I never had,” she said.
Her 43 seasons still stands as an NCAA record for the longest tenure of a softball coach – although one that is being challenged by her longtime friend Gary Bryce of Wayne State and fellow NE10 softball coaching legend Claudia Stabile of Pace University, both entering their 40th seasons.
And yet Groff is still there in more than just the name of the field. She still regularly attends games; she sits with Bedard in the same spot in the stands along the third base side at Judy Groff Field, a spot that current head coach Shalise Tolentino had actually prepared a special nameplate for to reserve it especially for them for the 2020 season prior to the COVID-19 pandemic wiping the campaign out.
Groff intends to be there in 2021 as well, a full decade after retiring.
“You’ve got to love what you’re doing, it’s as simple as that,” Groff said. “I really enjoyed having the students and helping them and just being around them is a wonderful thing; it never felt like work. You have to enjoy the game and enjoy competition,” she concluded.
Judy Groff Links of Note:
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