By JOHN GORALSKI
It was some time during her senior year at Notre Dame when Nicole deFau found herself alone with her division one coach, and the former Southington standout could see the tears welling up in Deanna Gumpf’s eyes.
DeFau was the only senior on that 2004 tournament-bound team. She had outlasted an all-American pitcher. She outlasted the other walk-on but adopted her team number in a show of solidarity. DeFau had shrugged off full scholarships to take her chances with the Fighting Irish. She battled through the ranks of recruited players to earn her spot as captain and leader of the Notre Dame squad.
DeFau hadn’t just made it. She had clawed her way to the top.
“I’m glad I wasn’t a betting woman,” the coach told the former Lady Knight. “I would have lost that bet.”
“When you take a chance on something that may or may not work out—and they completely exceed your expectations—it shows you who they are as a person,” said Gumpf. “Then, when you see what she did with the program? Gosh, that’s what it’s all about. She gave us everything she had, and that’s what made her great here.”
In fact, that’s what made deFau great everywhere she went. She never seemed to take the easy route or the clearly marked path in front of her. She didn’t shrink from challenges. She wasn’t afraid to take chances…and she usually ended up on top.
“That’s the way it is in everything I do,” she said with a laugh. “Nothing is really just for fun, even to this day. There isn’t a whole lot of super-competitive things out there for adults, but there are runs and bike rides and things to get into. Whatever I do, I try to do it to the best of my abilities.”
What is it that makes certain athletes so fearless on the stage? Why is it that some seem to rise to face every level of competition? Are they bred to be superstars? Are they driven to success?
For deFau, there really isn’t any explanation. Simply put, she never really gave it much thought. Athletics were always encouraged in her household. Whether it was dance class or a burgeoning town softball league, deFau threw herself into every activity with no thought of failure. But success was just a byproduct.
Once, when she was 10 years old, a friend invited her to join a local free throw competition, and deFau didn’t give it a second thought. She won the Southington contest, advanced to the state and regional competitions, and became the first Connecticut girl to advance to the national Elks Hoop Shoot competition where she finished 10th in the nation as a pre-teen.
Basketball wasn’t even her primary sport.
“It was pretty cool. It was exciting, and it was sort of out of nowhere,” said deFau. “That’s where I started learning about the mental side of athletics and how to clear your mind and focus. I had these subliminal messaging tapes that I would listen to before I went to shoot the free throws, and that was a huge help.”
This is how deFau seemed to approach every sport, as a challenge that could teach a life lesson. She shifted from infield to outfield to the pitching circle in softball. She played in town basketball leagues and youth soccer. Winning wasn’t the sole aim in competition. The goal was the competition, itself.
“As soon as I had the coordination to throw or catch a ball, I was constantly throwing some sort of a ball in the house,” she said. “My mom would always tell me that there were no balls in the house. ‘Go outside.’ So I’d go out and throw the tennis ball against the garage if I had no one to play with. I’d shoot basketball or kick a ball around the yard, whatever ball it might be. I was always doing something from really early on.”
Soon, whispers began to swirl up to the high school coaches. Former Lady Knight softball coach Joe Piazza remembers getting a call to come see a young pitcher on a Wallingford traveling team. Piazza wasn’t in the market for a pitcher, but it didn’t take him long to spot deFau’s potential. She fielded the pitching circle like an infielder and sped around the bases like a seasoned outfielder.
One thing was certain: there was a place on his team for the incoming freshman.
“She was intuitive. That’s the perfect word. How she got that way, I’m not sure,” said Piazza. “She just knew the game. She was a smart player…She was ready. She knew what to do, and she could play anywhere. She was so smooth.”
With future hall of famer Jen Gombotz on the mound, there was no need for deFau’s pitching in the spring of 1997. With a strong core of veteran returners, there really wasn’t a spot in the infield, but Piazza knew that he wanted the young up-and-comer.
“She was the kind of athlete that you knew that you could put wherever you needed to put her,” said the former coach. “We had some good outfielders that were good offensively and okay defensively, but Nicole was the perfect solution for center field. She could do anything out there, and that’s where she stayed.”
For three seasons, deFau roamed the Southington outfield. As a freshman, she managed a.987 fielding percentage with a .351 average at the plate. She broke .400 at the plate in her sophomore year and reached .500 in her junior season. She was named all-conference and all-state as a sophomore and a junior. College scouts began to pepper the sidelines.
Hoffstra wanted her badly. UConn offered a scholarship to play. Schools as far as Florida showed interest in Southington’s superstar center fielder, but deFau did what she always seemed to do. She sidestepped every path in front of her to blaze her own trail.
With a number of scholarship offers in front of her, she elected to honor an offer from Notre Dame to let her try out. No scholarship. No guarantees. Just a chance to audition.
“Notre Dame was a school that she always loved. She loved cheering for them. She went out there once with her parents and fell in love with it,” said Piazza. “I think she wanted to prove to herself, her coach, and all the doubters that she was as good a player as people were saying that she was…and she clearly was.”
Her school was already chosen, but deFau was far from finished at Southington High School. For three years, she was a two-sport varsity athlete with the Knights. She could have cruised through one more year as a basketball role player and an all-state center fielder, but deFau was ready to try something new.
She kicked off her senior year by walking onto the cross country team. She had never run distance before, but deFau clawed her way onto the squad and ran for a varsity letter as a rookie.
“I had never run more than a mile in the timed mile test before going out for cross country,” she said. “Then, you have to go out and run a race—I think it was 2.5 miles or something like that for women. Just finishing the race was a huge accomplishment, getting my body to do something that it really didn’t want to do.”
When the fall was over, deFau shifted her attention to a new challenge. This time, she tried her hand at indoor track, and earned another rookie letter—this time as a sprinter.
“It was all part of my plan. Running cross country and indoor track was solely for the purpose of staying in shape for my softball season,” she said. “The cross country part was mental. It’s about setting your mind to doing something and going out there and achieving it. Then, for indoor track, I was working on my starts off the bag for stealing bases. That’s one of those things I liked to do in softball, so I was trying to get my speed up.”
When the spring came, deFau had one more surprise in her bag of tricks. Piazza no longer needed her in the outfield. Graduation created huge holes in the infield, so deFau rolled up her sleeves and got to work. She shifted to shortstop, improved her batting average to .547, and helped plant the seeds for the program’s next dynastic run.
“I talked to Coach Piazza about it. At the time, it was best for the team for me to play shortstop,” she said. “I had some experience as a middle infielder before, prior to high school, and I would take ground balls every now and then, but I hadn’t really played middle infield for a long time.”
Still, she didn’t let it stop her or even slow her down. The Lady Knights were coming off three championship game appearances with state titles in 1997 and 1999. As a senior, deFau’s Knights wouldn’t match those previous seasons, but deFau’s leadership and experience was noticed around the state. The Connecticut landscape was littered with seasoned shortstops, but deFau—as a rookie infielder—quickly rose to the top of the list.
“It wasn’t easy at first. In the beginning of the season, I made a handful of errors. I was certainly not happy about that, but as the season went on I started to feel more and more comfortable,” she said. “I didn’t have to think so much anymore. I was able to react like I did in center field, but those first few weeks were a challenge.”
It surprised no one at the end of her senior year when deFau was recognized as Southington softball’s first Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year.
“I was in awe when I received the award,” she said. “For one thing, I didn’t even know it existed. It wasn’t like I was shooting to win any awards. I just loved playing. It’s an honor, just like being inducted into the hall of fame. You aren’t doing anything specific to win it or earn it, but it comes along afterwards as a really awesome culmination of all the hard work that went into it.”
So should it surprise anyone that deFau walked on to the Notre Dame softball field and earned a part-time role as the Irish rallied into the NCAA tournament? Should it surprise anyone when she did it again as a sophomore? Still, it must have surprised critics when the former walk-on broke into the starting lineup as a junior and was named captain for her senior year.
“Nicole basically came in, and I gave her a shot. I thought that this kid was a great athlete, so let’s see,” said Grumpf. “She quickly wins you over because there will never be anybody that out-works her. She’ll make sure of that. There are a lot of great athletes out there, but there will never be anybody that gives everything they have inside like her. She gave the team everything she had.”
It should be no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named deFau as a member of the Class of 2015. On Wednesday, Nov. 11, she will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460.
“Hall of fame players are not always born as the greatest athletes. They epitomize what you want in an athlete. The team has to be more important than they are. They have to become very selfless players and leaders,” said Gumpf. “She clawed her way onto the field, and once she got there I couldn’t get her off. That’s what I’ll always remember about Nicole deFau.”
To comment on this story or to contact Observer editor John Goralski, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.