Drama, Heartbreak And Transfers: Maggie Balint Speaks Out About Oregon Softball's Upheaval
When former Oklahoma assistant Melyssa Lombardi was introduced as Oregon’s head coach last July, she entered what appeared to be the perfect situation. The Ducks were coming off of back-to-back College World Series appearances, a Pac-12 championship and eight starters, plus a full pitching staff, were slated to return. On paper, Oregon appeared poised to compete for its first national championship.
In reality, the Ducks were on the verge of falling apart.
“I would say about four days after we returned from summer break is when people started to turn their heads,” said junior pitcher Maggie Balint in her first interview since leaving the program on Jan. 21. “I was keeping an open mind because I never thought I’d ever transfer out of Oregon, but there was just a bad vibe.”
That vibe has led to an exodus of players leaving Eugene. Balint, who went 7-1 with a 1.10 ERA in 2018, was among the most recent to leave the team.
“I was very skeptical,” Balint said about the hiring of Lombardi, who replaced Mike White after he left for Texas. “I actually asked for my letter of release (in July) just so I could see what else was out there, but coach Lombardi called me, told me about herself and I decided to give her a chance.
“I had no reason not to [give her a chance]. She has a really good resume. She has a good backstory about where she came from and how she developed herself. On paper, she’s a phenomenal coach. I thought it would be pretty cool to learn from somebody who won two national championships. Maybe there’s a secret hidden in there that I haven’t heard.”
Balint’s exit followed transfers by Oregon’s two other star pitchers — Miranda Elish and Megan Kleist — and a host of others, including starting catcher Mary Iakopo. That’s when Balint began to question everything.
Lombardi brought in sophomore pitchers Jordan Dail, a transfer from Virginia Tech, and Maddie MacGrandle, a transfer from Texas A&M. Neither was a regular starter at her previous school, but both are lefties, which Lombardi favors.
Then came the intra-conference transfer of freshman catcher Terra McGowan from Arizona State. “I wanted to give the two pitchers who came in a chance. I wanted to see what they had and evaluate them,” Balint said. “I heard great things about Terra and how great of a catcher she is. I thought, ‘Well, we got a catcher and two pitchers, what could go wrong?’”
That question was quickly answered when Balint found out one of the reinforcements Lombardi had brought in would have to wait until 2020 to compete.
“My expectations were not met and Terra is not cleared to play as of right now,” Balint said. “She’s been denied by the NCAA. In December when they posted she was on the team, I thought she was good to go. Now it’s January and I’m finding out that she isn’t cleared . . . that was pretty much a lie to my face.”
On Jan. 21, The Eugene Register-Guard ran a story detailing the disparity between the school’s administration and White regarding the terms of his contract. According to the story, White refused to negotiate for a figure less than the $505,000 offer from Texas. His base salary at Oregon was $237,500 with $90,000 in performance bonuses. Athletic Director Rob Mullens told the paper that Oregon, “wasn’t in a position to match” the offer.
Balint said the 18 players on the roster knew the story before the paper ran it, but it was the first time someone was willing to talk about it. At that point, she felt like all trust between her, her coaches and the athletic department had been broken.
“The athletic [department] didn’t tell us what was going on,” she said. “Everything was pushed under the rug like it was nothing to worry about.
“I traveled 3,000 miles [from West Grove, Pa.] to make my new home in Oregon and I came here for Mike White. I signed my [Letter of Intent] for Mike White . . . and at the end of the day, I trust Coach White. He has never lied to me. He has never gone behind my back. He is my go-to. He’s my backbone. He has never made me question him or question his reasoning for doing something. Whatever he says to me, I always say, ‘Yes, coach.’ That was how it was. That is not how it is with Melyssa Lombardi.”
When asked to comment about the situation, an Oregon spokesperson said in a statement to Softball America that Lombardi supports all of the student-athletes that are or were a part of the Oregon softball program and that Lombardi supports every student-athlete in whatever decision they feel is best for them. The statement also said that there will “likely be multiple additions to the roster before the season begins.”
The spokesperson said that the university “would not discuss injury or eligibility information, specific meetings or coaching philosophies.”
Balint felt like she was questioning everything Lombardi had to say, and what little relationship the two had couldn’t be salvaged.
“My biggest thing in any relationship, not just softball but with friends and family, is trust,” she said. “If there’s no trust, there’s nothing there. I can’t play for somebody I don’t trust or play for the University of Oregon, who I don’t trust on the athletic department side.
“I don’t feel comfortable here. I feel like I’m by myself and I feel like the athletic director didn’t have my back. I feel completely alone and I’ve never felt this way before on the softball field. The softball field is what makes me feel comfortable, it’s what makes me feel like I’m in the right place and I’m doing everything right.”
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The players’ bond with the coaches and the administration was shattered, but the trust they shared with one another remained as strong as ever.
Players, both current and former, have communicated regularly. They met often to reflect about the day and to discuss the positives and negatives of their situation.
Eventually the negatives outweighed the positives and Balint reached her breaking point. She told her teammates about her departure a week ahead of time so they wouldn’t be blindsided by her decision to leave the team but stay in school to finish her education.
“Before coach Lombardi came in, I can tell you, we were the closest-knit team there could be in softball,” Balint said. “We were so light and funny and joking and then all of a sudden things were crazy different to us.
“There was some dramatic event that happened every day, and that’s just not something I want to be a part of. I don’t want to be waking up in the morning and hearing my teammates crying for this reason or because coach said this to this person or so and so got pulled aside and was told this. That’s not a team to me and that’s not a family. That’s not the environment I want to be in nor did I ever sign up for.”
When Balint spoke about her time at Oregon, there was a moment when Balint sounded happy again. She had two good years, persevered through a back injury and appeared ready to take over as the team’s ace.
“Oregon has the best fans in the country,” she said. “I appreciate them more than anything. I have never cried so hard on a softball field. They wanted me to do so well and I’ve never had fans give me a standing ovation like that. People were crying, my mother was bawling. They knew how much I was struggling and when I got my chance, they were there for me. They are the reason I came back to Oregon even though Mike White wasn’t.”
Every player has a different reason for committing to a college. For some it’s the coach, for others it’s the athletic experience, the education, the campus or proximity from home. In Balint’s case, it was all of the above.
She will remain in Eugene for at least the next seven weeks. She is working a part-time job and finishing her education. She will open herself up for recruiting sometime in the next two to three weeks.
“From Day 1 I fell in love with coach White, the campus, the Jaqua (where student athletes study), the academic part was awesome,” Balint said. “When he left, (my life) turned sideways . . . softball took about five steps back and my whole reason for coming to Oregon was to play softball and get a degree. Now, I’m trying to get my degree and get out.”
Read more about Oregon and college, high school and professional teams across the country on the all-new Softball America, which launches in February. Follow @Maren_Angus on Twitter for updates.