What does it mean to be a great coach?

To some, winning is all that matters. To others, it’s how you impact the lives of the players in your dugout, or how much adversity you and your team can overcome to reach its ultimate goal.

But what if you take all of those qualities and roll them into one? Well, then you’d have yourself a great candidate for Coach of the Year — and in 2023, nobody fit the mold better than Belle Vernon’s Tom Rodriguez.

On March 28, barely a week into the regular season, Rodriguez lost his wife, Linda, who died at the age of 77. A staunch supporter of the Leopards over the years, Linda always made sure to keep tabs on the team and get to know the players, even in her older years. Surely nobody could have blamed Rodriguez, 78, if he decided to hang it up and call it a career right then and there, but he insists the thought never crossed his mind.

A memorial placed just beyond the center-field fence at Belle Vernon’s softball field honors coach Tom Rodriguez’s late wife, Linda. (Submitted photo)

That same day, Belle Vernon beat Ringgold, 11-0, in its first section game of the season to improve to 4-1 overall on the year. The Leopards certainly had a fine ballclub, but not many people were expecting them to go all the way to the WPIAL championship game at the beginning of the season — not even Rodriguez. Heck, even after finishing 15-4 in the regular season, Belle Vernon was a long shot to win the WPIAL title as a No. 4 seed that had already been handily beaten twice by No. 1 Elizabeth Forward.

After all, the Warriors were undefeated and had only given up 11 runs in 17 games going into the WPIAL semifinal showdown between the section rivals. Plus, Elizabeth Forward had steamrolled the Leopards, 11-1, in their previous meeting on April 26. Needless to say, most had already penciled the Warriors into the WPIAL final long before the contest began — but that’s why they play the games.

Few expected Belle Vernon to win, but nobody could have predicted the 10-1 beatdown that ensued to send the Leopards to the WPIAL title game for the sixth time in Rodriguez’s 22-year tenure. After the win, players proclaimed they were dedicating the season to Rodriguez while playing in honor of his late wife’s memory. That game also happened to be win No. 301 of Rodriguez’s career, but it’s safe to say win No. 302 topped them all.

A memorial placed just beyond the center-field fence at Belle Vernon’s softball field honors coach Tom Rodriguez’s late wife, Linda. (Submitted photo)

In a dramatic back-and-forth battle against Montour in the WPIAL Class 4A finals, Belle Vernon prevailed in an 8-7 extra-innings thriller to capture its fifth WPIAL title under Rodriguez’s watch. The Leopards are one of eight WPIAL schools to win five softball titles, with four of those championships coming in the past eight seasons. But this one felt a little bit more special for Rodriguez after all the personal grief he had to endure, not to mention the roller-coaster ride of emotions he felt during the wild championship game.

After taking an early 2-0 lead, Belle Vernon fell behind, 4-2, then battled back to tie the score at 4-4. The Spartans then took a 5-4 lead in the bottom of the fourth, but the Leopards answered right back to tie it and send it into extra innings. In the top of the eighth, Belle Vernon scored three runs to take a seemingly comfortable 8-5 lead — only to watch Montour rally with two runs in the bottom half of the inning before the would-be tying run got thrown out on a highly disputed play at the plate.

Had the runner been ruled safe, the game might still be going on to this day. Instead, it ended in an 8-7 win for the Leopards and one for the thumb for Rodriguez. And although they lost a 4-3 heartbreaker to Elizabeth Forward in the PIAA quarterfinals, this was a season Rodriguez and his players will surely never forget.

For all he and his team managed to overcome this season, Rodriguez is the 2023 Pittsburgh Union Progress softball Coach of the Year. All coaches in the WPIAL and City League were considered for the inaugural award.

The PUP caught up with Rodriguez to discuss his decorated career, his ability to persevere through heartache, his future plans, and what he’ll remember most about this unforgettable season.

Belle Vernon coach Tom Rodriguez signals to his players as they take on Elizabeth Forward in the PIAA Class 4A quarterfinals June 8 at Hempfield Area High School. (Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Q: What have you been up to so far this offseason?

A: I’m working on my book. I make up a yearbook [every year]. I’m up over 100 pages already, trying to get it done. It’s just the whole season from the beginning. I’ve got to get it done by Monday.

Q: Is that something you do for the school yearbook or is it your own personal project?

A: I do it all myself. I bind it and print it all.

Q: Has the reality of what you and this team accomplished this year started to sink in yet?

A: I’m not sure. I still think, I’m just delighted. I never thought after the season that we would make it that far.

Q: Where does that WPIAL championship game rank among the most memorable wins of your career?

A: I’ve had some other ones come down to the end. I’m serious, like the one [against Yough in 2015] we were losing, 4-1, in the last inning, and we scored four runs. The last one before this one [against Elizabeth Forward in 2018], we were up by one and they had the bases loaded and the girl hit a line shot to left field, and my girl [Vanessa Porter] made an ankle catch [to end the game]. But this one is memorable for a lot of reasons.

Q: Would you have ever imagined this team winning a WPIAL title at the beginning of the season?

A: No, I didn’t. I thought we would be in the playoffs, but I didn’t look — not that I wasn’t going to try. But our goal was to make the playoffs and make some noise in the playoffs.

Q: How did this team compare to your previous four WPIAL championship teams?

A: Last year, my team hit 16 home runs. When I first started, we were hitting one, two or three [per year]. Going back to 2018, we had 13, then we had 16 in 2022, and we had 28 this year. When I first started, if I could get one or two kids to hit a home run, I was happy. The kids really came around and put in the work.

Q: You had quite a balanced lineup this year, didn’t you?

A: I think my top six players were so close. They all batted around .400 to .450.

Q: Why do you think this team was able to come together and play its best softball against the best competition in the postseason?

A: If I had that answer, I’d bottle it and bring it out when I needed it.

Q: When your wife passed away, did you ever give any thought to retiring on the spot?

A: At that time, not really. She was always supportive. And I actually do this to keep busy. I can’t sit around and not do anything. I’m really involved with the youth association. I was down there this morning sweeping the fields, because we’ve got a couple games today. I can’t sit around. I don’t watch TV unless I’m watching softball.

Q: Was Linda always a big fan of the team over the years?

A: Oh yeah. With all my grandkids, she was usually taking them somewhere. But the girls knew her well, and they spoke highly of her.

Q: What does that mean to you when you hear your players say they were dedicating this season to Linda’s memory?

A: I cried. What can I say?

Q: How were you able to overcome a loss like that and continue coaching this team to a championship?

A: My family was supportive. They wanted me to continue. I just — like I said, I’ve got to be busy. I just can’t sit around and do nothing.

Q: What will you remember most about this season when you look back on it?

A: Boy, I don’t know. I guess I’ll never forget this one. It was a long season. I just want to thank all my players. Seriously, they were wonderful. Always asking me how I’m doing.

Q: I’m guessing you’re going to especially miss those seniors [Lexi Daniels, Olivia Kolowitz and Maren Metikosh]?

A: Yep. In fact, I just sent all three of them an individual text a couple days ago, just to thank them for what they’ve done and how important they were to the team.

Q: Any plans to retire on top or will you be coming back next year?

A: [Laughs] No. When I don’t wake up in the morning, then I’ll retire.

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.