After a 36-year coaching career, Donna Papa knows softball is about more than just wins
By Cooper Metts | Photography by John Michael Simpson
When UNC softball players walk into Anderson Softball Stadium, they must leave their phones on a rack. Players also meet individually with the coaching staff for lunch each month.
Head coach Donna Papa implements policies like these to help foster connections among the team. “It’s building that trust,” she says. “I think the more you can build those relationships and put them on a solid foundation, the more that experience is going to help lead you to success on the field.”
Donna’s success on the field is undeniable. Over her 36-year-long (and counting!) career at UNC, her teams have earned five ACC regular-season titles and made 14 NCAA Tournament appearances. She boasts a 1,290-749-5 record.
The self-described “passionate competitor” played the sport herself for four years at the University of Connecticut, serving as co-captain for two years. Then in graduate school at UNC Greensboro, Donna was an assistant coach for its softball team.
During a coaching stint at Susquehanna University, Donna’s former player notified her of the head coach opening at UNC. She didn’t think twice about applying. The opportunity to coach at a place that “constantly is pushing you to come out of your comfort zone and work to be excellent” was irresistible to the warm-natured Connecticut native.
And after a few decades at the helm, Donna still cares about winning, but she also defines the program’s success by the lives she can shape.
“It is about softball,” she says. “But when you look at the core of it, it’s really about the people in your program and the girls in your program and helping them with their life skills.”
South Carolina coach Beverly Smith, a former player of Donna’s and her longtime assistant, recently won her 400th career game as a head coach in a game against the Tar Heels. Beverly knew the loss would upset Donna as a competitor, but “[Donna] certainly was able to articulate to me how proud she was,” Beverly says.
As a coach, Donna tries to take the pressure off players, who balance full course loads with practice and nearly 60 regular season games, by giving them smaller, more manageable tasks to work toward their bigger goals.
“We try to keep it really small,” she says. “As a hitter, I don’t have to do anything so big. It’s not like I have to get up there and hit a home run. My job is to get on base.”
Donna also purposefully sets time aside for the team to have fun and take a breather from the day-to-day grind. Team trips to Dave & Buster’s and pickleball games provide a much needed physical and mental break. Beverly fondly remembers spontaneous water-balloon fights started by Donna during practice from her time as a player at UNC.
Similarly to Donna’s phone policy, the diversions are about winning games, but they’re also just as much about building relationships that prepare players for life after Chapel Hill.
“When your college career is over, you’re going to remember more of the experience with those people,” she says. “Some of their teammates wind up being their best friends, and those kinds of things go for a lifetime.”