When Bob Ullman was hired to coach the Coppin State women's softball team last August, he called his new players together — all five of them — and gave them a can-do speech about pulling together to make history.
When informal practices began a month later, participation ranged from two to six players. But by the time practice officially started in January, after Ullman's abbreviated recruiting turned up four new players, Coppin at least had enough to field a team.
Just four months and 22 wins later, the Lady Eagles will play in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament playoffs on Thursday. If you listen to them, they're going down to Ormond Beach, Fla., with an 11-player roster to win the MEAC and advance to the NCAA tournament.
Impossible? You don't know the road this team has followed.
In the previous three seasons, Coppin won a total of five games — and lost a staggering 90. They suffered through two winless seasons (2007-08) and a 71-game losing streak that spanned four years.
Until this season and the completion of Coppin's $136 million Physical Education Complex, the team never even had a field to call its own.
The difference is the emergence of Detroit native Paige Arnold as perhaps the league's top pitcher, a camaraderie that transcends team unity, and Ullman's positive approach.
Arnold, a windmilling righthander with a wicked rise ball, has tossed two no-hitters this season, won 20 games with a MEAC-low 1.50 earned run average, and slugged nine home runs, a single-season record at Coppin.
"She's that good," Ullman, 55, said.
The 5-foot-7 sophomore was also one of the handful of players who showed up last fall, trying to shake off a 5-27 freshman season. Arnold is passionate about softball, is a regular in the weight room and wants to pursue a career in sports medicine as a physical therapist for a professional baseball team.
"She's one of the hardest working teammates I've ever had, as far as dedication," said senior shortstop Candice Wright. "She's always doing the extra things it takes to succeed."
Arnold had no idea of Coppin's softball history when she agreed to come to Baltimore. Dismissive of partial scholarship offers as a senior at Cass Tech, she jumped at the full scholarship offer from A. J. Pope, Coppin coach and an alumnus of Cass herself.
Soon after accepting the scholarship, Arnold checked Coppin's website and discovered the miserable softball record. Undaunted, she came anyway.
"At that moment, I decided this would be a good challenge to bring out the best in me, make me a better player and change the program around," she said. "That was the main reason I came."
Arnold was not an immediate success. She went 5-25 with a 5.46 ERA as a freshman. At the end of the year, Pope was fired and the team seemed on the verge of collapse.
Enter Ullman, an assistant coach under Pope last season. He says he wasn't the first choice to run the program, but obviously he was the best. His contract makes him a part-time coach, as are his assistants, Larry Hineline, the pitching coach, and Ashley Wade. Ullman has been involved with women's softball for four years and men's softball for 26 years.
Ullman, who is vice president of Cisco Athletic Co., which manufactures sports uniforms, aspires to greatness for Coppin: "I'll be disappointed if we're not in the NCAA tournament within two years. Our goal is to compete now. … We want to build a powerhouse here, and I think we can do it."
Said Arnold: "Coach Bob changed everybody's perspective. Last year we had a decent team, but our main problem was finishing the game."
Arnold shouldered some of the blame herself, saying she let games get away in the seventh inning by giving up an untimely walk or hit. But shoddy defense — then and now — remains Coppin's biggest enemy.
Arnold became the cornerstone of Coppin's resurgence once she developed a rise ball that jumps 12 to 16 inches and an almost equally devastating drop ball.
"When Paige throws her pitch properly, she's unhittable," Ullman said. "She's a phenomenal defender. From the left side of the plate, she can get to first in 2.39 seconds. She's unbelievable."
When Arnold doesn't pitch, which is rare, she plays right field. "I don't like to put her out there because she'll be diving for balls," Ullman said. "It drives me crazy. One little crack in her finger and we're done."
That's because Coppin plays with no margin for injury. Arnold and Tiffani Whaley are the team's only two pitchers. But that tenuous balance has also made the team closer.
"The biggest problem in girls softball is, for a lot of teams, they can't stand each other," Ullman said. "I hear a lot of horror stories. This team is very close and it's not a fake close. When I got the job and got them all together, I said we can make things happen here, but the key is, we have to get along with each other."
The Lady Eagles face North Carolina A&T in the opener of the double-elimination tournament Thursday at 1:30 p.m. It's Coppin's first tourney appearance since 2004.
The chance to play in the postseason is particularly heartfelt for junior first baseman Jade Dudley, who has a team high .336 batting average and seven home runs.
"It makes me glad I stuck around because I almost didn't after last year," Dudley said. "I considered not playing softball any more. Coach Bob convinced me to come back."
And Coppin has picked up on Ullman's can-do pitch as well. The Lady Eagles finished third in the MEAC North at 9-6, but they believe they can take the title.
"We won 22, so we can do four more," Dudley said. "We're not deep, but we have heart."