Cover photo courtesy of Muhlenberg College Sports Information Office
By Mckenzie Maneggia ’20
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. – One of the most successful players to come through the Eastern Connecticut State University softball program is now a collegiate head coach – something that she may not have seriously contemplated while she was earning All-America honors as a pitcher for the Warriors between 2009 and 2012.
But while Molly Rathbun had not yet determined a career path as an Eastern undergraduate, it was clear to everyone in the Eastern community that her personal qualities and work ethic would make her an unqualified success in whatever she eventually chose as a profession.
That feeling has obviously spread well beyond the immediate area.
“Molly is an exceptional young professional who is mature beyond her years and who has fit in here in overwhelming fashion,” praised her current boss, Muhlenberg College Director of Athletics Corey Goff. Goff chaired the search committee last June that tabbed Rathbun as the program’s ninth head softball coach. “Our student-athletes have responded to her in the best possible way." According to Goff, the softball student-athletes on the selection committee “fell in love with her (after her interview) and it hasn’t stopped. She brings great credibility to the table.”
Last spring, Rathbun completed her first year as head coach at Muhlenberg, a Division III institution located in Allentown, PA. Although this location is farther away from her home in nearby Hebron than Eastern, she said that she was glad it took her out of her comfort zone, “It was a big adjustment moving away from my family, friends, and resources, but it has been a great experience and helped me to grow a little bit.”
Inheriting a young team of two seniors and eight freshmen and sophomores at Muhlenberg, Rathbun won her first game as a head coach on opening day in the same location (Clermont, FL) where she pitched a complete-game three-hitter over Babson College in her first career start and first of her record 103 career pitching victories at Eastern eight years previously.
Rathbun, 26, is the most decorated softball player in Eastern’s tradition-rich program, earning NFCA Division III All-America honors all four years (three times as a first-teamer) as a pitcher/utility player, setting most all of the current career pitching records (etching her name into the hitting recordbook, as well) and hurling the Warriors to consecutive regional championships and berths in the national tournament.
At left: Rathbun's unparalleled pitching career at Eastern including 103 wins in 117 decisions, 1,130 strikeouts in 770 2/3 innings, a 0.88 ERA, eight no-hitters and one perfect game.
Playing at Eastern helped mold Rathbun into the coach she wanted to be. One of the main things she focusses on as a coach, that she learned at Eastern, is the “WIN” philosophy. WIN stands for What’s Important Now. “[It is about] staying in the moment, not letting anything get too big and controlling what you can control, says, Rathbun.
After changing her major from Physical Education to Sport and Leisure Management at Eastern, Rathbun eventually settled upon an Individualized Major which included Pre-Nursing. With several options available upon graduation, she decided upon a graduate assistantship coaching softball at Springfield College, earning a Master’s Degree in Sport Psychology in the process.
That two-year GA position helped her realize that she wanted to become a head coach. “I learned a lot from Julie Perrelli (the head coach at Springfield at the time) and Kate Bowen (current head coach, formerly a GA with Rathbun). They expanded my outlook on coaching. And that’s when it finally clicked for me. I wanted to give back to the game that gave me so much.”
Although Rathbun was unaware of her passion for coaching until later, her college coach, Diana Pepin, knew that she had what it took to be a head coach. “I could absolutely see her becoming a head coach (back then). She was very knowledgeable and mature beyond her years,” noted the 16-year head coach, who provided Rathbun with her first collegiate coaching position as a two-year Eastern assistant following the completion of her career in 2012.
At left: In addition to pitching, Rathbun proved herself to be the best two-way player in program history with a.390 career batting average which included 28 home runs, 303 total bases and a program-record 145 RBI.
Transitioning from an assistant coach to a head coach has had its ups and downs. On one end, Rathbun now gets to implement her own philosophy and mold the team to her liking. On the other hand, there are more responsibilities. “I really need to get a tougher skin,” she admits. “You go from being an assistant where everybody loves you and now I’m the one making the (difficult) decisions and not everybody likes that. It’s tough, but at the end of the day I am looking for the best interest of all of the players, because I genuinely care about them.”
Another serious adjustment that she had to make was with the division of her time. “My role as an assistant coach was primarily pitching, catching, and hitting. I wasn’t really the head honcho in infield, outfield, and defensive strategy. Becoming a head coach was different, because I had to do everything.” She had to make sure that she split her time up and see every position. This was a vital part of deciding who was going to be in her starting lineup.
At left: Rathbun's (far left) coaching career began at Eastern in 2013, when she assisted head coach Diana Pepin for two seasons following the completion of her career in 2012.
Someone who made this transition easier for her was her assistant Alyssa Hancock, who had played the 2012 season with Rathbun at Eastern, then played under Rathbun the following two seasons. Rathbun had nothing but positives to say about Hancock. “Coaching with Alyssa was one of my favorite aspects, and I think it was the matter of coming from the same program. There was this trust and understanding of each other and it made my first year so much easier. I can’t thank her enough.” (Hancock, like Rathbun an All-America at Eastern, will not return next year to Muhlenberg, as she has followed in Rathbun’s footsteps as a GA at Springfield College).
Rathbun believes strongly in trust and chemistry. As a coach, she likes to put her players in uncomfortable situations so they have to lean on each other for support. By doing this, the chemistry on the field is improved. “It starts by breaking down the barriers of trust. They don’t have to be best friends off the field but they do have to respect and trust each other.”
She really emphasizes trust between coach and player as well. “Because I’m young, I’m easy to trust. I get it. I was just there.”
. Besides trust and chemistry, she is working on bringing history and tradition to the program as well. One mantra that is constantly repeated by Rathbun is to Play for the ones before you and for the ones coming after you. “One of my favorite things that I did was bring in (former Muhlenberg head coach) Ruth Gibbs, and that history is important. We have that at Eastern with (former head coaching legend) Clyde Washburne. I wanted to bring some of that history and tradition to Muhlenberg. I wanted the players to realize that they were playing for more than just themselves.” At Muhlenberg, Rathbun is also working on establishing connections with softball alumni in order to additionally strengthen the program.
Muhlenberg has been a great fit for Rathbun. She is overjoyed by the atmosphere in the athletic department and she feels that they support her in all the difficult decisions that she has to make. They are supportive of her bringing her sports psychology knowledge into the Muhlenberg life style as well. “The other great part of my job is that I am in the process of building a sport psychology program for athletes. (AD Corey Goff) has been great about letting my first year be about getting situated. Now, we are trying to offer something to our athletes about sports psychology. I am thankful for that because I don’t know if I could get that opportunity in a lot of places.”
For his part, Goff offers that “Molly has a positive approach to everything that she does. She’s been outstanding, a breath of fresh air. We could not be happier with her.”
Rathbun feels that her sports psychology background sets her apart from most other coaches. “As an athlete, I used a lot of sport psych techniques like imagery, self-talk, triggers and cues. It absolutely changed my view as a coach,” she says. “How I speak to my players, how I correct a mistake if I see one. It changed my coaching approach, in a good way.” With this knowledge, she is capable of making educated decisions on how to approach different coaching situations.
Academics are regarded highly by the school and by Rathbun. She feels lucky to be coaching students with such a high academic drive. As someone who previously played Division III softball, she understands the importance of academics and what they can do for an individual’s future. “Softball is a bonus,” she stated. She points out that there are very few opportunities to play professional softball out of college, so it is very important to get a good education.
Pepin has been a great mentor to Rathbun. They clearly have a great relationship and Rathbun leans on her often. “I don’t know how she’s not sick of me yet!” Rathbun commented jokingly. “Through my four years and now even after [Pepin] has always been there for me whether it was in life, academics, or softball. I owe a lot to her all around. Most importantly, she has become one of my friends now.”
For her part, Pepin says that “Molly is so humble and always willing to learn, and she never takes anything for granted. She is going to do whatever it takes to be successful in coaching or whatever she does in life.”
Rathbun envisions an extensive coaching career at Muhlenberg, with a focus on continuing to build the program. “Muhlenberg is not one of those programs where you go to get head coach on your resume and then leave,” she stressed. “I can grow here as a coach and as an individual. The athletic department staff is so amazing. It is a really good environment for me to be in as a coach.”
With all of her collegiate playing and coaching experiencing coming at the Division III level, Rathbun is content to remain at that level, at least in the near-future. “Division III definitely has a special place in my heart. I love what DIII stands for and I think it provides a great balance for athletes. It offers more opportunities as a student, and you are a student first.” She added that if she did eventually decide to move up to Division I or II, it would likely be as an assistant.
There is one job that could get her to leave, however, and that would be the head coaching job at her alma mater. “Eastern softball is in my blood,” she admits.
Although it does not sound like retirement is in the near future for Pepin, she thinks that Rathbun would be a great fit back at Eastern, “I would love for someone like Molly to take over when I retire.”