It’s the ninth inning. Josh Romanski is pitching. There are two outs. Only Harvard’s Matt Vance stands between a University of San Diego win and, for the first time in 12 years, a no-hitter by a USD pitcher. Vance makes contact, but when the fly ball lands safely in centerfielder Kevin Muno’s glove, the celebration begins for Romanski and his teammates. Their excitement is matched — possibly even exceeded — by that of Judy Eppler, who is up in the stands watching. She has tears running down her face.
“I was saying under my breath (in the ninth), ‘I know you’ve had some tough times, but I know you’re going to make it. This is for all the times people doubted you and you doubted yourself,’” Eppler recalls. “When the team rushed onto the field, I can’t tell you how happy I was for him. I was crying.”
Romanski’s achievement means a lot to Eppler, his mentor since he came to USD in 2006. That was the first year of baseball coach Rich Hill’s Championship Mentors program, which pairs freshmen with university staffers and community members. “Coach Hill did it so freshmen have someone they can talk to about adapting to college,” says Romanski, now a junior. “(Judy and I) have developed a great relationship. She’s like my mom away from home.”
Eppler, USD’s director of donor relations, has been a “beacon, our star mentor,” Hill says. As for Romanski, he’s glad to have another adult to come to for advice. His mother, Sheila, has survived two breast cancer scares. And while his father, Andy, has been a big influence, living up to a parent’s expectations can pile on the pressure. A star high school pitcher — the San Diego Padres made him a 15th round pick in 2006 and reportedly gave him a six-figure offer — Romanski chose college instead because USD lets him pitch and play in the outfield. The decision, however, also meant facing a tougher academic landscape than he was used to in high school.
“When Josh got here, it was a real culture shock,” Eppler recalls. “Not only being away from home, but also learning to budget his time. He realized how important it was that he was in class doing his assignments. If you’re not turning in assignments, you don’t get grades, you don’t stay eligible and you won’t play.”
While she’s good at dishing out tough love, Eppler’s abiding passion is for baseball. She’s a regular at USD home games. As a mother, she equates mentoring with open, honest communication. “I try to be a sounding board and talk to Josh. When I ask him how he’s doing in school, I want the truth. I tell him, ‘I don’t want to hear what you think I want to hear.’”
Mentors are asked to serve as role models. Practically, this means holding a monthly meeting with their student-athlete, counseling and guiding the player’s transition to college, working in conjunction with coaching staff to provide a system of checks and balances, and assisting with nuts-and-bolts advice on etiquette, wardrobe and effective communication skills.
Hill, who’s built USD into a nationally ranked team, says the mentor program is an effective recruiting tool. “When you’re talking to parents and talking about developing their son at USD, this is one of the things we’re going to do for them,” he says. “It’s a way to ensure that their kid develops and flourishes.”