Story by Evan Oscherwitz
Photos courtesy: GCU Athletics
For the last 18 years, Ann Pierson’s name has been synonymous with GCU softball.
Pierson has coached the Lopes since they first took the field as a fledgling CCAA program in 2004. Over the course of her tenure, she has overseen GCU’s transition into Division I and won WAC Coach of the Year two times. On Mar. 19, she reached another impressive milestone, recording her 500th career victory in a 13-5 win over Idaho State.
“It was a great achievement,” Pierson said. “It’s special because this is a really great group of kids that I have currently, great staff that I’m working with currently.”
To say that Pierson built GCU softball from the ground up would be an understatement. When she first arrived on campus in December of 2002, the university had fewer than 1,000 students and was still struggling to make a name for itself, which left Pierson with very few resources to help jumpstart the softball program.
“It was small when I got here,” she said. “We literally had nothing. We had to build the field, and we had help from the men’s soccer program, the athletes and the coaching staff, the men’s baseball program, the athletes and the coaching staff. We had a baseball alum build the grooves for our dugout. We kind of tapped into the community and tapped into really generous people who wanted to donate their time.”
— GCU Softball (@GCU_Softball) March 20, 2021
The school’s lack of notoriety also presented issues when it came time for Pierson to start recruiting players. GCU’s location gave her easy access to the breadth of softball talent in Arizona, but drawing attention to the new program proved difficult at first.
“It was challenging to just try and get word out that GCU was starting a softball team,” she said. “I had to learn the university. I had to be familiar, so I was speaking the truth about the university and understanding the background and what it was really all about.”
Despite the early recruiting difficulties, Pierson coached the upstart Lopes to a 28-24 record in their inaugural season with a roster primarily made up of junior college transfers.
Though they did not qualify for the postseason, their early success helped Pierson attract local and out-of-state talent in the years that followed, which eventually turned GCU into a force at the Division II level.
“I had quite a few junior college kids, which was awesome,” she said. “The junior college system in the state is outstanding, putting out so many tremendous student-athletes, so that was definitely an area that I tapped into. Our first year we had a great year. We just started to kind of boom from there.”
Under Pierson’s watch, the softball program continued to grow in conjunction with the university. The Lopes made the West Regional Tournament three times between 2010 and 2013 as members of the Pacific West Conference before moving to Division I in 2013, just as the university was beginning its rise to national relevance.
“[The move to Division I] was all president (Brian) Mueller and his vision for the university and the athletic program,” Pierson said. “It was a ‘hey, this has gone really well, let’s jump to the next level and get to where we really want to be.’”
— GCU Softball (@GCU_Softball) March 20, 2021
The team experienced immediate success at collegiate softball’s highest level, posting winning records in each of its first six Division I campaigns. Pierson received Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year honors in 2014 and 2017, and 35 GCU players have received postseason awards since 2014.
Although the Lopes status as a program has changed immensely in the years since Pierson took over, her coaching philosophy has remained the same from the very beginning.
Aside from winning games, her main priority as a coach is preparing her players for life after softball. She believes that stressing the importance of education and maximizing effort will serve her players well once their playing careers come to an end.
“I want them to see how tough and how resilient they truly are,” she said. “All the adversity they’re going to come across, I want them to just know, ‘Man, I’ve done it. I’ve been knocked down and I keep getting right back up.’”
Pierson’s emphasis on preparing her players for the future has not only helped create a winning culture at GCU, but it has also fostered a family dynamic within the softball program. Every year, she arranges for alumni to speak to the team and share stories from their time with the program.
The event allows the current generation of players to learn from those who came before them and gives Pierson a chance to reconnect with her former players, which to her is almost as rewarding as winning games.
“As I’ve gone through my career, people ask about [my] best memories and the best things about it. It’s getting the wedding invitations; it’s getting the birth announcements. It’s unbelievable what they’re doing in their lives.”
While Pierson’s 500th career win serves as proof of how far GCU softball has come since she first took over the reins, she understands that the program still has room for improvement. As the only coach the Lopes have ever had, the future of the program rests in her hands, and she aims to continue its steady progress.
The team may have reached its landmark 500th win, but GCU’s first Division I postseason appearance has still eluded them. It’s up next on the list of milestones as the Lopes continue to grow. With Pierson at the helm, it may only be a matter of time before the program reaches those accolades as well.