Heading into the 1988 New York State Women’s Collegiate Athletic Association (NYSWCAA) Tournament, the SUNY New Paltz softball team was not expected to advance out of the first round, let alone make a run for the State Championship title.
Despite the arduous road ahead, the Hawks overcame SUNY Albany, Stony Brook University and Binghamton University, as well as a key injury to their starting shortstop and lead-off hitter Jacqui Pesa ’88 (Contract, Physical Fitness Management), to pull off one of the biggest triumphs in program history.
This fall, in part because of the team’s legacy from that fateful state championship run 30 years ago, players were inducted into the 2018 SUNY New Paltz Athletics Hall of Fame.
“I guess you don’t think about it at the time, but as you reflect on it, you realize it definitely was a special team,” said Michele Smith-Farro ’89 (Business). “It was honestly bigger than what we ever could realize. All of us together were the definition of synergy.”
The team had high expectations going into the season after finishing with a solid 16-7 record in 1987, earning third place in both the SUNYACs and the State Tournament. The Hawks failed to make the SUNYACS in 1988, but their modest 12-6 record earned them a spot in the NYSWCAA’s. The top eight teams in the state, out of 43 schools, are invited, and the Hawks were seeded 7th.
“We had the talent,” said former head coach Alan Dunefsky ’69 (Biology) ’91g (Humanistic Multicultural Education). “We knew we could score runs against anybody.”
After defeating host team and No. 2 seed SUNY Albany 5-1 in the first round before a large crowd, the Hawks went up against No. 3 seed Stony Brook. The Patriots (now Seawolves) jumped out early to a 2-0 lead before a severe wind storm interrupted play forcing the conclusion of the game until the next day. Senior co-captain and starting shortstop Jacqui Pesa severely sprained her ankle during the game. Despite losing their lead-off hitter for the rest of the tournament, the Hawks bounced back and beat Stony Brook 11-2.
“That hurt. To lose Jacqui at short and to lose her bat was, in the moment, crippling,” said Christine DeBiase ’90 (Communication). “But we were a never-say-die team. We had great chemistry and that plays a big part for any team. If you have chemistry, it will manifest itself in the way that you play.”
However, Dunefsky had faith in his freshman left-fielder Michele (LaDuca) Bilello ’91 (Communication Studies) who stepped in and played like a veteran. Not only did she hold down the spot at shortstop, but also delivered at the plate. She ended up finishing third on the team in batting average (.424), while adding 25 hits and 17 runs with 13 RBIs.
With the Championship match-up set against No. 5 seeded Binghamton, the odds were against the Hawks. Binghamton was playing well having knocked out No. 1 seed Brockport earlier, but New Paltz remained confident. The final warm-ups, according to DeBiase, were the sharpest she could remember and that translated immediately once the game began. “We were firing on all cylinders,” she recalled.
Capping off its magical run, the Hawks defeated the Colonials (now Bearcats) 7-4 to take home the State Tournament title.
Looking back 30 years later, the 1988 New Paltz softball team still holds the only championship trophy in program history and boasts the best winning percentage in a single season, along with arguably the most talented roster the team has ever seen.
Since 1988, Pesa, Smith-Farro, and DeBiase were inducted into the SUNY New Paltz Athletics Hall of Fame as individuals. Combined, the team features six first-team All-SUNYAC selections and boasts three Carol Eckman Award recipients for best female athlete. Christine DeBiase is a Heinz Ahlmeyer honoree.
But as talented as the roster was, DeBiase insisted, most of the credit goes to their head coach.
“Coach D. was all about playing smart. He cared so deeply about coaching, but not just winning – he cared about us as individuals,” she said. “We admired his leadership, and we rallied around him. I think a lot of the credit for this championship goes to him.”