There she was: a teenage kid with ’80s feathered hair tucked under a batting helmet. She stood in the third-base coach’s box, making decisions and flashing signs, managing her team in the second round of Pennsylvania’s high school softball state tournament.
Janelle Breneman had already filled out the lineup card, penciling her own name in as Ephrata High’s shortstop. Breneman was a player/coach that day, appointed by head coach Rick Donmoyer because he couldn’t get time off from his day job as a milk truck driver to be at the playoff game.
Ephrata beat State College 10-1 that afternoon on the way to the state finals.
“So that was my first official win as a coach,” Breneman deadpans, looking backward through the mists of time to 1987.
A whole lot of victories have followed since then, including 425 as a college head coach at East Stroudsburg, Bucknell and finally UNCG.
Breneman has built a winner in Greensboro.
Now in her 10th season with the Spartans, Breneman holds a school-record 285 victories and should notch No. 300 sometime this spring. The G plays its home opener Friday in the Spiro Classic tournament.
UNCG is the preseason favorite to win its fifth consecutive Southern Conference regular-season title, and the Spartans are coming off their second NCAA Tournament appearance in the last four years.
Breneman’s program has come a long, long way in the last decade.
“Most of the time, it’s hard to believe it’s really my 10th year,” she says. “It feels like five or maybe six. I remember coming here for my interview. I went to lunch with (tennis coach) Jeff Trivette, and I was thrilled because he was a veteran coach. I wanted to know, ‘Why have you been here for 12 years?’ I was excited about picking his brain. And now, all of a sudden – holy cow – I’m that veteran.”
SUCCESS AT THE G
Breneman took over before the 2013 season, coming to UNCG after six years as an assistant coach at North Carolina and two more as the top assistant at South Carolina.
She inherited a program coming off 12 consecutive losing seasons in the Southern Conference. And yet, Breneman won immediately, going 38-19 that first year. Her Spartans have won at least 30 games in six of nine seasons.
“When I got here, I knew this was a really special place,” Breneman says. “I loved (former athletics director) Kim Record’s approach. The student-athlete experience was very important to us. I knew there was a great facility here, the best in the state. There was academic success. And the campus is beautiful. With those things, I knew I could successfully recruit here and get some top kids from North Carolina and not lose them to the ACC or SEC. I knew I could compete.”
Breneman ticks off the names of key players from her first recruiting class: Alicia Bazonski, Gabrielle Cubbage, Becca Kale.
“In the first couple of years, the challenge was to get recruits on campus to see what we had to offer,” Breneman says. “If I could get them to visit, we had a chance to get blue-chip recruits. It takes two or three of those to turn the corner. Well, we ran softball camps in the summer, and kids would say, ‘Your field is better than Carolina’s or State’s or Duke’s.’ We still have the best facility in North Carolina.”
And by the time the players in that first recruiting class were seniors, UNCG had won two SoCon titles and an NCAA berth.
The attitude had begun to change. Instead of wanting to win and hoping to win, the Spartans expected to win.
“The kids have to believe,” Breneman says. “They have to learn how to win.”
That’s easier said than done. Breneman recalls the first time her Spartans reached the SoCon Tournament championship game, and shakes her head.
“The day before the game, my starting second baseman came up to me and said, ‘Coach, I have a problem: I booked a flight to go home next weekend,’” Breneman says. “Here we are, on the verge of going to NCAA Regionals, and I had to realize the kids just weren’t used to winning. They were thinking our season was going to be over after the SoCon Tournament.”
Breneman was flabbergasted.
“Somehow, I kept my composure,” she says. “That was the learning curve. But now, every one of our kids believes we are going to win, and we are going to the postseason.”
‘I LOVE IT HERE’
As the victories piled up and the expectations grew, Breneman became more and more comfortable. Greensboro feels like home. And so she has turned down offers to leave for rebuilding projects in power conferences.
“I obviously love it here,” she says. “I’ve had some chances to go elsewhere, but I really think UNCG is a special place. There are three components for me.”
No. 1 is location. She loves Greensboro. The city suits her, and so does the climate. And it’s a manageable drive from her family in Pennsylvania.
No. 2 is the support she gets from UNCG’s administration and staff. She knows all the coaches and assistants in the athletics department by name. And the university pays attention to detail, such as adding a padded wall to the outfield, making a stadium she already considered the best in the state even better.
As for No. 3, that’s the biggest thing.
“I can recruit well here,” Breneman says. “I can get talented young ladies to come play here, ladies who can hit in the middle of our lineup and not only help us win in the SoCon, but also knock off UNC or knock off Duke.”
And so, UNCG has played tougher and tougher non-conference schedules as the years have gone by, challenging a good team to be great, preparing players to not only reach the postseason, but to succeed.
“This could be my last stop. I really do love this place. And I love the type of kids I get to work with at UNCG every day,” Breneman says. “The type of kid we’re recruiting has high aspirations for academics and a passion for softball. The challenge for us was getting those high-achieving kids in here.”
‘A NATURAL LEADER’
The truth is, Janelle Breneman was born to coach.
A fire was lit within her that afternoon as a high school junior when she coached her teammates in a playoff game, and it’s been simmering ever since.
Just ask her mentor, Bloomsburg University’s Hall of Fame coach Jan Hutchinson.
“Janelle can break down parts of the game and present it in a way that makes her players understand,” Hutchinson says. “She’s not a screamer. She’s not going to put people down. She’s going to explain it, then expect you to be highly motivated and bring your best to practice every day. She’s a motivational coach. She’s got the knowledge, and she’s a natural leader. She exudes it.”
Or ask Beverly Smith, her fellow assistant coach at North Carolina who made Breneman her first hire when she took the top job at South Carolina.
“First and foremost, Janelle’s a teacher,” Smith says. “She’s proven she can develop players, and ultimately that’s her strength. Look, our job is to find the right fit when you recruit people to your school. But the real measure is if those student-athletes are developing under your watch. Janelle has proven herself there. Student-athletes get to Greensboro, and they get better.”
And it goes beyond the practices, and the games, and the road trips.
“She listens. And that’s important,” Smith says. “She’s a really good listener, and then she’s able to give great feedback. Janelle cares. Her players absolutely know that she cares about them. She’s clear about standards and expectations, and she provides the roadmap for her athletes to be successful.”
The winningest softball coach in UNCG’s history will work her 10th home opener at The G on Friday, leading a team that expects to win headlong into spring.
“It’s the best time of the year,” Breneman says. “The season has started.”
Story by Jeff Mills, University Communications
Photos by Martin W. Kane and Grant Gilliard, University Communications; and Carlos Morales, UNCG athletics