Michelle Venturella knows competing in Division I softball is a tough go for a mid-major school like Illinois-Chicago, but she won't let that be an excuse.
The Thornwood and Indiana University grad achieved success at the prep and college levels as a player, all before she won a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics. She likes the challenge, especially in a city where there are four Division I programs with DePaul, Northwestern and Horizon League foe Loyola.
"I think you have to make your program and school stand out to get those kind of players who will make the program successful," Venturella said. "I have Chicago as a selling point, the greatest city in the world, and the school itself is very good academically."
Venturella was a first baseman on Thornwood's back-to-back Illinois Class AA state softball titles in 1990 and 1991, part of Gary Lagesse's dynasty at the South Holland high school. At Indiana, she was the Big Ten player of the year in 1995 and made All-America as a catcher.
The position change helped her achieve in more success.
"My coach at IU, Diane Stephenson changed me to catcher and it just opened so many doors," Venturella said. "I became more versatile and that is why I was able to make the Olympic team."
She was a catcher on the U.S. team which won the gold medal at Sydney, Australia.
"I think back now, 12 years later, and my perspective is a little different," Venturella said. "You realise how lucky you were and how you pushed yourself."
She said she tells her players of her experience.
"I played two games, 10 innings total," Venturella said. "I ask them, 'Was it worth it? Do you think all that hard work was worth it for 10 innings?' they say 'Yes.' I agree. Looking back, to be a part of the Olympic team and win a gold for your country is worth it."
Venturella has made the experience at UIC a good one as she led the Flames to the 2011 Horizon League tournament title and a berth in the NCAA tournament. It was the program's first since 2004. The Flames also won the league's regular-season title in 2009 and she was named the Horizon League's coach of the year
"I think that going to the NCAAs set a standard for us," Venturella said. "We set our goal as wanting to go every year and that is a good goal to have. You have to put in the work and look to get better, but that is what playing sports is about."
She credits a lot of her coaching knowledge to Iowa's Gayle Blevins, to whom she was an associate coach under, Stephenson, Donna Martin at Northern Illinois, where she was an assistant, and Lagesse.
"All had a influence on me and you learn a lot about taking care of the little things," Venturella said. "Coach Lagesse, that was a great experience playing for him and what we did at Thornwood."