When you’ve led the Redbirds to 900 wins, you might think the games would all kind of blend together.
Not for Melinda Fischer ’72, M.S. ’75. Give her a minute to think about it, and the veteran Redbird softball coach says she can recall distinct moments from each victory—from the way her team’s bats exploded for 16 hits last season against Southern to win the Missouri Valley Conference title, to the chilly doubleheader against Bradley this month that led to Fischer’s 900th victory with the Redbirds.
Fischer is now in her 28th season with Illinois State, and her 907-609-4 record at ISU makes her the winningest coach in school history. But Fischer, who went from playing softball on the Pekin playgrounds to the Redbirds Athletics hall of fame, is the first to tell you that it’s a team sport, 100 percent. And she’s proud of her 900+ ISU wins, and is grateful to have the one thing many college coaches do not—longevity.
“This is a university that has invested in me, and fortunately I’ve been able to give back the best that I can,” Fischer said. “You’re not in this position at all unless you’ve had tremendous, loyal people to work with.”
Fischer got her start in the Pekin Lassie League youth softball system, where a lot of the coaches (former players with the Pekin Lettes women’s fast-pitch team) were Illinois State alumnae. Fischer knew early on that she wanted to be a physical education teacher, and her Pekin coaches and mentors told her, “If you’re gonna teach, and you wanna play, Illinois State is where you need to go.”
She heeded the advice and became a three-sport Redbird athlete—field hockey in the fall, basketball in the winter, softball in the spring. The shortstop-turned-third baseman helped lead the Redbirds to the 1969 Women’s College World Series, where they finished second.
After graduating, Fischer taught at Hufford Junior High in Joliet for two years but had the itch for collegiate coaching. The master’s program at Illinois State allowed her to coach basketball and softball, so she came back. (She also spent a year at Richwoods High School in Peoria but always preferred the collegiate setting.)
“I just felt it. You just know when it’s right, and it felt right,” Fischer said of college coaching.
She picked up some more basketball and softball coaching experience during a two-year stint at Eastern Illinois before coming home to ISU in the early 1980s. She spent five years coaching the women’s basketball team alongside her own former coach, Jill Hutchison, another Hall of Famer.
“That was an amazing dream come true,” Fischer said.
Building her legacy
Fischer took over as head softball coach in 1986. In her 28 seasons at Illinois State, her teams have won a combined nine Missouri Valley Conference and Gateway Athletic Conference regular-season championships. The team’s NCAA Tournament berth in 2012 was the third-straight for ISU—a first for the program.
As for recent games, that 2012 MVC title-winner over Southern Illinois stands out, Fischer says. The team has earned at-large NCAA Tournament bids—thanks in large part, Fischer says, to the University supporting her push for a tough early-season schedule—but the conference crown proved elusive.
“That was so exciting, to finally see a team come out (of the MVC tournament),” Fischer told STATEside. “That one does kinda sit in the mind there for a while.”
Many of the big hitters and defensive standouts from the 2012 team returned for this season, which has been a challenging one because of repeated rain-outs. Fischer’s team is 24-18 (9-6 in MVC play) headed into this weekend’s home stand against Northern Iowa, with Senior Day and Fan Appreciation Day set for Sunday.
Players today are a little different than the ones Fischer first encountered in the 1980s, now that three-sport athletes are a rarity and experience with specialized pitching and hitting coaches is commonplace. But Fischer says her coaching philosophy—her values—are the same: Build a fundamentally sound program, do things for the right reason, do them the right way, learn from your mistakes, and do all of the above as a team.
To help instill those values, Fischer has a seven-person staff with tons of experience, including associate head coach Tina Kramos (13 years’ experience), assistant coach Shannon Nicholson ’07, M.S. ’09 (five years), and volunteer coach Bill Dickson ’54, M.S.E. ’57 (15 years).
“That’s how I coach my team, that’s how we coach our program,” Fischer said. “You learn from the person in front of you during an at-bat, you learn from the inning in front of you from a defensive perspective, and you just try to be better the next time you have that opportunity.”
After the season ends this spring, recruiting season gets underway throughout the summer and fall. Fischer does get a little downtime around the holiday break when the fall mini-season wraps up. In what little free time she has, Fischer likes to travel, and relishes international trips with her team.
And what about the possibility for Fischer’s 1,000th Redbird win? Fischer says she’s taking it “one day at a time, one game at a time, and one season at a time.”
“This is my home. This is absolutely my family. There’s no other place I’d want to be,” Fischer said.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.