Diane Ninemire Leaves Lasting Legacy at Cal
Each time Courtney Deifel high fives Hannah McEwen as she trots around the bases after hitting a home run, she does it with a little bit of Diane Ninemire in her. That includes every pat on the back she gives to Autumn Storms after an inning-ending strikeout or in the postgame praise she gives her Arkansas team after a hard-fought SEC series.
Deifel, a sixth-year Division I head coach, is attempting to create a culture in Fayetteville, Ark. that is similar to the one Ninemire established at Cal during her 32-year career there as head coach.
"What she was able to build at Cal is just remarkable with the resources and everything that she had," Deifel said. "To put Cal on the map and do that consistently throughout her career is just remarkable. She had a huge influence on me."
Ninemire, who stepped down from her position earlier this month amid health concerns, earned 1,355 wins, 30 postseason appearances and won the 2002 Women’s College World Series in her tenure at Cal. Her impact on Deifel began way back in 2000.
Then Courtney Scott, Deifel was a part of that 2002 WCWS championship team. She says the guidance Ninemire gave her has greatly impacted her coaching career, as she learned how to cherish her players for exactly who they are.
"The thing that has influenced me the most was the relationship that you could have with your players and just loving and encouraging them to be themselves...She didn’t try to fit them into any type of mold," Deifel said. "She truly loved each of us for who we truly are. That brought the best out of us on the field. We all knew she cared for us and was our biggest fan.
"There’s something to be said about constantly having incredible confidence. She did so much to build confidence in her players to where they trusted their abilities and how they played the game."
In 32 years, Ninemire touched plenty other former Golden Bears. Former Cal pitcher and 2020 student volunteer assistant Kamalani Dung is one of them. After the 2017 season, Dung decided to transfer from Fresno State, and despite receiving interest from many other schools, she picked Cal. Ninemire had a lot to do with it.
"During my transfer (period), I had the opportunity to visit a lot of schools and a lot of really, really good schools. It’s kind of this thing when Coach (Diane) wants something, she’ll make sure she gets it," Dung said. "She gave me the full Coach Diane treatment where she knew all the right things to say...She used that to her advantage. It was just the right fit."
Dung never saw herself getting into coaching when she first arrived in Berkeley. But, once again, Ninemire saw the potential for her in the dugout based upon Dung’s performance on the field.
"Coach (Diane) had a big role in that because I was initially unsure if I wanted to go into coaching. She really took a liking to my passion and work ethic," Dung said. "That’s what persuaded me to stick around. She said she'd take care of me while I was here. That was a big thing for me. Now, I’m really interested in coaching and potentially taking the next step."
Ninemire tried passing down her philosophies as a coach because they proved successful for her throughout her career. The decision to let players be themselves handed them the confidence to produce winning results on the field.
Despite earning the Mountain West Pitcher of the Year award in 2017, Dung lowered her earned run average in 2018 and earned Pac-12 All-Conference honors in 2019. Dung credits that to Ninemire allowing her players the freedom to be themselves.
"I’m somebody who likes to fist pump when I pitch, get the crowd involved, the team involved to be hyped and passionate," Dung said. "There was never a problem with that and Coach (Diane) would actually tell me to do more of that because it’s something that her team hadn’t been doing in a while. She was encouraging me to play with my passion."
It proved true in 2002 as well. Throughout the entire season, Ninemire’s certainty in her team never changed. Cal wasn’t the top-ranked team in the nation or in the Pac-12 heading into the WCWS that year.
"The confidence she had in us never wavered," Deifel said. "So the confidence we had in ourselves and each other was a direct correlation to how confident she was in us. I think it didn’t matter who we were playing or what we were playing for, she had confidence in us."
The team was led by the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Jocelyn Forest, as she and Cal shut out Arizona, Arizona State and Florida State to capture the program’s first national championship.
"It's just been amazing, especially with this team," Forest said postgame after the 2002 WCWS. "This is the best group of girls I've ever played with. We came out here ready to play. Just being here wasn't good enough. We proved a point. People underestimate us all the time. Nobody ever believes in us. The only people that ever believed in us was ourselves. We came out here and did a job."
Forest and the Golden Bears had plenty of adversity during that 2002 season as well. Forest tragically lost her sister just a month prior to the team’s run in Oklahoma City. Deifel wanted it to be known that Ninemire did quite the job helping the team get through it.
"We all came together as a team and Coach (Diane) guided us through that," Deifel said. "She just did such a job for us staying present and knowing that as long as we believed in ourselves, we could beat anybody. I think that’s such a huge strength as a leader and a coach."
Whether it be through the record books or the people she’s influenced, Ninemire will always be connected to softball in one way or another.
"She loves this program with her whole heart and she’s shown me what being driven and being passionate can get you," Dung said. "She was someone that taught me if someone tells you no, there’s always another way. At the end of the day, I don’t think anyone can deny the fact that her name will always be etched in the history books as one of the greatest and one of the game’s most historic coaches."