Alumni Update: Sun Devil Hall of Famer Lucy Casarez Part of Japan's Gold-Medal Softball Staff
By Marco Salas, Sun Devil Class of 2022
Lucy Casarez, a Sun Devil for life, recently helped coach Japan to defeat Team USA to win gold in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games in softball.
Born in Blythe, California, Casarez had another calling in life as she aspired to be an architect.
After graduating from ASU with an Architecture degree and a successful softball career, compiling 81 wins, 806 strikeouts with a 0.63 ERA, all ranking fourth in ASU softball history, Casarez looked to go overseas for a new softball experience.
"After I graduated from ASU in 1985, I had missed some summer games with my softball team and they had traveled to Australia. I didn't get to go because of my courses in the summer, so I decided to ask the team that our team visited and asked if I would be able to go in there and play for the experience to get out of the country and try something new."
Casarez was accepted by the Glen Waverley softball team and traveled to Melbourne, Australia to play for them. She would be there for a year and a half while also interning for an architecture firm.
"I was in [Melbourne] for about a year and a half and because their winter there is our summer. So I was able to play ball during our winter over there. I played ball but I also worked over there, it was almost like an internship for me."
After her time in Australia, Casarez moved back to the United States and started her architectural career at a firm in San Diego. She still played softball in Los Angeles for Coach Joe Getherall, who had connections overseas. After two years in San Diego, she would receive an offer to play for the Toyota Industries Corporation, a team from the Japanese Professional Softball League.
"My Los Angeles coach knew a coach from Japan and he had talked to my coach and asked if he knew of any pitchers that would be interested in joining a team over there. That's when my head coach called me from Los Angeles and asked me if I would be interested in playing in Japan. At first, I told him no and I turned him down," Casarez said.
After initially saying no, Casarez slept on the offer and decided to talk to Bill Lewis, the principal of the firm she was working at, and asked for his advice. His advice would set Casarez on a new path in her life.
"I asked to talk to the principal of the firm and I told him that I had an offer to play in Japan and he said, 'you have what! You have to go, you have to experience things because you can always do this for the rest of your life.' He was the one that kind of talked me into trying something else. Experiencing the world is what he wanted me to do."
Taking her boss' advice, Casarez set out to Japan to begin her career with the Toyota Shokki. When she first got to Japan, Casarez was hit with a culture shock. She was one of the first Americans to ever play in Japan.
"They would allow me time off when I needed the time off because I was one of the first Americans to play in Japan so they didn't know how Americans would adjust to the Japanese culture."
Learning Japanese culture wasn't hard for Casarez as she compared it to her time at ASU when she was studying Architecture.
"One thing I learned while learning architecture was there are times that you want to quit because it's so hard. It takes a lot of your time and you have to study, you can't go out with your friends because there's always homework. There's always something to do or design and I feel because it was so strenuous you become stronger mentally and I think a big reason why I was able to adjust to the differences in culture."
Casarez found herself in Japan playing for the Shokki for three years before deciding to hang up the cleats. She helped the company find her replacement and Casarez recruited Michelle Smith, a left-hander from Oklahoma State University and now a commentator for ESPN.
"1990 was my first year, I pitched three years for the Toyota industries corporation. I was done pitching and I told them that I could recruit somebody for them and I recruited Michelle Smith. I recruited her to take my place so she came over and they asked me to stay on as a pitching coach with the company."
Casarez would go on to recruit notable ASU alumni to the team such as Katie Burkhart, Kaylyn Castillo, and Dallas Escobedo. She would move up the coaching ladder and in 2004 became the head coach for the club.
In 2011, Casarez was asked to join the coaching staff for Japan's National team by Reika Utsugi. It came as a surprise to Casarez as she saw Utsugi as a bitter rival.
"I was a head coach for about six years and during that time there was another team called Hitachi Takasaki. We were always rivals, we were big rivals during that time and we would split our championship games between each other. She became the head coach of the national team in 2011 and she called me and asked me if I would coach with her as an assistant coach which shocked me because I thought we were big rivals and we hated each other. I was very surprised that she asked me to coach with her."
With no softball in the Summer Olympics in 2012 and 2016, Japan's National Team was looking to 2020 in Tokyo to defend their Gold, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. As all teams did, Japan took the time they had off to make sure their players were in the right mindset to compete.
Casarez said, "we have a mental coach on the Japan team and he kept in touch with all the girls to talk to them about continuing. It was after the Olympics got canceled our mental coach started talking to the girls and sort of convincing them it's their feelings. He understands their feelings and if they don't want to play then make sure it's for the right reasons that they don't want to play anymore."
With all of them returning, the anticipation grew as they counted down the days before the first pitch. Japan was returning key pieces from their last run in 2008. Pitcher Yukiko Ueno, catcher Yukiyo Mine, and outfielder Eri Yamada all returned to help secure Gold in the event. Casarez believed having them on the team made the games a whole lot easier for the others who were new to playing on the Olympic stage.
"We had three players that were in the 2008 Olympics and they helped a lot. It calmed the entire team, you know seeing them calm. I do think that helped a lot with the team with the pressure and everything, they were able to guide the team through the whole process."
After they beat the United States in the Gold medal match, Casarez felt like the team had a weight lifted off of their shoulders because of the hefty expectations that were set on them from the beginning.
"I think there was pressure both ways but this time it was almost expected of them from the public. That added pressure was a hard thing for them to get out of their mind, just play their own game, and stay focused. After they won I think it was more of a relief, I could feel the calm and relief of the team because of the expectations. To me that was the difference, they were extremely happy of course but I could almost see everybody take a deep breath at the end."
For Casarez, it was hard to describe what it meant to win Gold at the Olympics. Accomplished, yes, but to see her players succeed after all they've been through was the best feeling for her.
"You care about your players and you want them to excel and you do it for them and when you see those players have success, it makes you feel good. I work with all of the pitchers and it just made me feel I've done what I had to see these players succeed."
Now living in San Diego, Casarez looks back at the Olympics and compares winning to the time when she received her acceptance letter to ASU
"The other time that I was super excited was opening that letter of acceptance from ASU when I was accepted. That was one of the most exciting times of my life because if you don't get accepted your entire career changes."
With everything that led up to her career in coaching, Casarez owes it to the one person that pushed her, her boss from the architecture firm in San Diego.
"My architecture boss, he's the one that said you gotta go and experience this [going to Japan] and it's because of him that I went. All these things that happen for a reason, you don't know where it's going to lead to."