There was no chatter about kids or family when Amanda Lehotak made the long drive from Omaha to State College, Pa., a few days ago with big sister Michala Cimino.
“It may be pathetic, but it's true,” Lehotak said. “We talked about softball the whole 16 hours.”
That focus is probably not that surprising for the Omaha siblings who grew up with the game and now lead their own college programs — Cimino at Bellevue University and Lehotak as the new head coach at Penn State.
Drills, motivation, team traditions. They covered it all. There may even have been a few recruiting calls.
Lehotak has dived into her new challenge — taking over a Nittany Lion team that finished 16-34 last season and second-to-last in the Big Ten at 5-17. Her days are already filled with scheduling, lining up fall practices, putting together a code of conduct book and paperwork. Not to mention finding a place to live.
“I'm still in dream land,” Lehotak said. “I'm in total shock and awe that this is all happening.”
Lehotak, a head coach for the past seven years, the past two at Texas-San Antonio, sold Penn State officials on her vision for the program.
The 32-year-old put together a five-year plan to take the Nittany Lions to the top of the conference. Regionals in three years, super regionals in five or six. She'd like to have Penn State ready to make a run at the Women's College World Series in 10.
“She represents all of the core values that we look for in a coach at Penn State, and she presented a very strong and clear vision of how she plans to run and strengthen the softball program,” Athletic Director David Joyner said in a release.
Turning around programs is Lehotak's specialty. After her playing career at Omaha Gross, Mississippi and UNO, and a few stints as an assistant, she got her first big shot at Jacksonville University in Florida, where the team improved each of her five years as head coach.
“Jacksonville allowed me to be a young head coach and fail and try again,” Lehotak said. “I'm a big studier of winners in all sports. I will call winners in any sport and ask what they do.
“I read books. I'm not afraid to experiment. If it doesn't work, let's try again or let's try this. Failure does not scare me.”
Lehotak will often call on other head coaches, like Nebraska's Rhonda Revelle or Texas A&M's Jo Evans. Or her cousin Jeff Beals, an Omahan who wrote the book “Selling Saturdays,” which teaches sales and marketing lessons through the strategies of famous football coaches.
Revelle, who took the Huskers to the Women's CWS this spring, said she's followed Lehotak's career closely. They've talked often, including when Lehotak was considering the Penn State job.
“We are thrilled for her at the University of Nebraska,” Revelle said. “We are thrilled for their entire family and the softball community and just having another native Nebraskan not only in the Big Ten but in the landscape of our sport.”
Lehotak will bring a lot of energy to the job, Revelle said, and will make a real commitment to get Penn State in the hunt in the Big Ten and beyond.
“We're excited to follow her progress,” Revelle said. “We'll be Penn State fans as long as they are not playing the Huskers.”
As helpful as Revelle has been, there are two coaches Lehotak calls who are even closer to home — her sister and her dad, Ed, a former coach who is now the athletic director at Bellevue University.
From her dad, she learned strategy and the ability to coach and relate to each player as an individual.
“He did a great job of knowing which kid to yell at and which kid to coddle, and get them all to move forward together,” Lehotak said.
She's still trying to master what she's seen from Cimino, who has been the head coach at Bellevue for the past four seasons and has led the Bruins to the NAIA tournament three times.
Cimino was the first to play softball among the three Lehotak sisters, who include middle child Carrie Zoucha. Coaching Michala is how Ed got started, and Zoucha this year loved coaching her own daughter, Ellie, for the first time.
Cimino is the queen of the game-day speech, her sister says.
“She can literally will her teams to greatness,” Lehotak said. “That is something I want and wish I had. Sometimes I get too caught up in teaching. I forget to have fun like she does.”
Getting better drives Lehotak. Tell her she can't do something and she'll make sure she proves you wrong.
She is determined to be a great coach. Three months at a job in the “real world” years ago convinced her that was her path.
“I don't want to be average. I don't want to be good,” she said. “In order to do that, you have to keep challenging yourself and evolve with the game.”
Lehotak sometimes wishes she could turn off that constant striving to be the best but says she can't.
Some areas of her life take a hit, especially during the season. She's learned to tell people no, that she needs a break.
One area she won't compromise is being a great mom to 20-month-old daughter Dylan, who she said already has a pretty good arm.
Dylan is bossy, too.
“She has the attitude of a pitcher, which I did not want,” Lehotak said. “I wanted a shortstop.”