Where do talented softball players go to stay close to the game? Often they give back by helping out young players.
Some become coaches or mentors at the club level and that’s the case for two former college standouts, Aleshia Ocasio-who won a National Championship as a pitcher/utility player at the Univ. of Florida--and Hannah Dionne--who walked on at St. Joseph’s and became a starter for the Hawks in the Atlantic 10 Conference.
Both of the accomplished players are helping out one of the most talented 14U teams in the country--the Lady Dukes-Lamar squad based in Durham, North Carolina--and their contributions give added expertise to a program deep in talent both on the field and in the dugout.
Head coach James Lamar knows something about athletics: he was a football and baseball player at the University of Indiana, but grew up right outside Ann Arbor, Michigan and was just a short 10-minute bike ride to the University of Michigan family.
He married into athletic royalty too, as his wife, Marissa Young, was a star player for the Wolverines and currently is the head coach for Duke University. Her father (James’ father-in-law) Robert Young was a long-time coach in the Firecrackers organization on the West Coast and is a well-respected instructor and hitting technician.
Along with “two die-hard dads in Gary Johnson and Lemuel Swiney,” who both have daughters on the Lady Dukes 14U squad, James Lamar now can draw on the coaching expertise of not just his immediate family, but also two former college players who his team of young players respect and listen to.
“There’s only so much a male coach like me can say to the young ladies,” laughs Coach Lamar. “These two young players have brought in something our girls can respect--both did what it took to play and contribute to their teams--and I see now that our young team has a different urgency; they want to be more disciplined and want to get better. Our girls were talented before on the field, but we’ve added the mental component and toughness brought in by Aleshia and Hannah.”
Ocasio is a professional softball pitcher and utility player with the Chicago Bandits and the Puerto Rican National Team where she earned a gold medal in 2018 at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Barranquilla and hopes to do the same at the 2020 Olympics.
She agreed to make several appearances with the Lady Dukes because she believes in their program and has some time in her off-season.
While the two have had different college experiences, the head coach emphasizes they share a common trait.
“Aleshia and Hannah preach the Lady Duke core values of commitment, sacrifice, and mental toughness to get what you want. Our young players need to see and hear it from someone they can relate to, someone who knows firsthand what they are going through and what it takes to be successful at the college level.”
The Lady Dukes are made up of 2022 and ’23 grads--the only ’24 is James and Marissa’s daughter, Layla Lamar, who committed earlier this year to Florida.
Layla’s recruiting process with the Gators brought James and the Lady Dukes in contact with Aleshia initially, but that wasn’t how they first became aware of her.
“I remember watching Aleshia playing for Florida against Michigan in the Women’s College World Series--we were still very much ‘Go Blue’ (Michigan fans) at the time--and remember thinking, ‘Who is this freshman?’”
After being impressed with the Florida standout in person and at camps, they got to know her and invited the National Champion to help out the Lady Dukes' program.
Hannah’s connection was much different: she was a babysitter for Coach James’ sister-in-law after the former St. Joe’s player came to North Carolina to attend law school at the University of North Carolina.
“I met her one time and loved her personality,” Lamar remembers. “She was fun, but aggressive like a drill sergeant and we instantaneously clicked.”
With an elite staff ready to guide a team that already has four freshmen committed to Duke and one 7th grader committed to Florida (prior to the early recruiting rule changes), the future looks bright and Coach James is excited for what 2019 will bring.
“The team mantra for next season is #ALLIN and we look forward to competing in the summer with trips planned to play more on the West Coast in preparation for next year’s PGF Nationals.”
“First though,” he concludes, “we will be scary good in the spring.”
Below is the team’s roster and comments from Coach James Lamar on the position groups and how each player is expected to contribute: