Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter

Cal U’s Lilley Field has a new dugout.

One of the most unique, yet unfortunate, streaks in Washington County sports over the past few years belongs to the California University softball program.

The important number in this streak is 73. That’s the consecutive road games the team had to play while its home field was under renovation during the 2018 and ’19 softball seasons.

In 2020, however, that streak will come to an end, as renovations – totaling $1.1 million, according to the university’s office of administration and finance – for Cal’s Lilley Field, are expected to be complete by the end of the month.

Starting next spring, Cal softball will again play some games at home.

“Certainly, we’re very excited to have the field coming back this fall – I should say, within the next month, so that we can have our players have home games here on campus,” athletic director Dr. Karen Hjerpe said.

The renovations, Hjerpe said, were necessary because of a drop in quality of Lilley Field that eventually was deemed impossible to play on.

“We started to develop a significant drop off behind the infield going into the outfield,” she said. “It was such that as we came out and took a look at the field, the grading from right field to left field, as well as the drop off, created really an unplayable situation for us. … At that time, we said that there was a need to regrade the field and to make some improvements on it for the safety of the players.”

Some of the field’s features include a new scoreboard, new dugouts on both sides, batting and pitching areas for both teams and new fencing. Additionally, the renovations include a press box that will allow cover for sports information staff.

Despite the significant disadvantage of not being able to play any home games, the Vulcans held their own in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, combining to go 22-18 in conference play over the past two seasons, and making the PSAC tournament with a 12-8 record in 2018. While the team won more conference games than it lost, the program isn’t at the level it once was. Head coach Rick Bertagnolli, who has been at Cal for a quarter century, is the winningest coach in the school’s sports history, guiding the Vulcans to 21 NCAA tournaments, highlighted by consecutive national championships in 1997 and ’98. Not having a home stadium, however, had an effect not only on current players, but also in Cal’s recruiting efforts, Bertagnolli said.

“It was very tough recruiting athletes when you don’t have a field to show.”

While not playing home games has been hard enough for Cal, the program also has had to find different ways to practice. Without a field, the team has used indoor space in the school’s gymnasium, Hamer Hall. In addition, the Vulcans also have used turf at the school’s soccer field to practice. This created a lack of stability, according to Bertagnolli, who estimated that 75 percent of the time, he would have to change his original practice plans because of scheduling conflicts.

A more subtle challenge has been in the classroom. Despite having to travel considerably more than most teams, the Vulcans still excelled academically, posting a team GPA of 3.65, according to Bertagnolli, good for fourth in the country.

“The adversity for these young women and what they’ve overcome, I couldn’t be more proud of how they’ve hung in there with it, and the up and down of waiting for the complex to be finished,” he said.

Before the renovations, Cal hosted the WPIAL softball championships. Since then, championship games have moved to Peters Township High School. Hjerpe is looking for the opportunity to host the championships as well as other district playoff games again once Cal gets its field back.

“We hope so,” she said. “We will reach out again to the WPIAL. We talked to them last year when we were not able to host again. … I’m hoping that we will have (the championships) as well as some of the initial playoff games back here on our field next summer.”

The field will officially be opened during a ceremony Saturday, Sept. 21, which is Cal’s family day.

Bertagnolli looks forward to a return to normalcy for his program.

“(The field has) been missed for a while, and I’m looking very much forward to being out there, and just being a regular softball team again,” he said.

Hjerpe is excited for the chance to reconnect the softball program with its campus.

“We have a great following for women’s softball, and it provides a great atmosphere with the pavilions that are out in the outfield, as well as the seating area around the field,” she said. “I think that it just provides a great atmosphere for student athletes, spectators, and parents just to come and watch our softball team compete.”

Bertagnolli is confident that these renovations will eventually give Cal a chance to achieve its ultimate goal.

“Now we should start that rebuilding to get back to where California softball once was,” he said.

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