Central's Zust brings zest for coaching

Former Illinois Benedictine star now sharing her wisdom with Red Devil softball teams

When Brittany Zust first became head coach of the varsity softball team at Hinsdale Central, she quickly recognized one goal she needed to achieve: grow youth softball.

The Orland Park native said many Chicago suburbs - particularly in the southwest - have competitive softball programs for young girls that lead to experienced high school players. That was not the case in Hinsdale, and she discovered not everyone agreed it should be.

"Stop trying to bring a blue collar sport to a white collar town," one feeder school official told her. "That was the fuel I needed to change things, because I don't believe that to be true."

But many others were happy to help in the effort, and some of the little girls she helped introduce to softball now are in high school.

"That's pretty cool to see that come full circle," Zust said. "In fact, I have one of those students in my class right now."

Steve Contreras, dad to Grayson, a Hinsdale Middle School sixth-grader, said Zust is a wonderful ambassador of the sport to younger kids.

"She coaches varsity players and deals with that age group and skill group," he said. "At the same time she related very well to the 5-year-olds, the 6-year-olds."

Having a strong youth program is critical to having a successful high school team, Zust said.

"Even though I think we've done a really good job in the last 10 years, you look at our surrounding suburbs - Downers Grove, La Grange - they have had softball in their youth programs for years, so they are a step ahead of us," she said. "We are definitely playing the catch-up game."

A lifetime passion

Zust began playing softball as a kid and continued to hone her skills at Carl Sandburg High School before playing shortstop at Benedictine College. There she was a member of two teams that reached the NCAA Division III Championships and served as team captain for three years. She still ranks second all-time in program history for batting average (.433) and hits (244). Her achievements were recognized last year when she was inducted into the Benedictine Hall of Fame and described as "one of the most prolific offensive players to take the field for Benedictine."

She said she was humbled by the honor.

"It was cool, because that night all my old teammates showed up. My old coach got to induct me," Zust said. "It's a very surreal moment and it makes you grateful for all the memories, grateful for all the laughs."

The night also served as a reminder that despite the number of wins she and her teammates achieved (137 in four years), the team's record wasn't what she remembered most about playing ball in college.

"When I got inducted I was not thinking about all the wins. I was thinking about all the great memories I had with my teammates and my coach."

From player to coach

After graduating from Benedictine in 2012, Zust spent a year coaching JV softball and teaching at Addison Trail High School before joining the staff at Central. She was hired as a special education teacher and assistant softball coach.

"It was a good segue just to kind of see how things ran here and what were some of the strengths and weaknesses of the program," she said.

Under Zust's leadership the program has expanded from just a varsity team about the time she took over as head coach to now fielding two JV teams as well.

"Every kid made varsity, and that just doesn't work, especially when you have girls who have never played before," she said. "We're thrilled that we can say we're at three levels. Our next jump would be to make all three levels competitive. Although I'm extremely pleased with where we are now, I know we still have work to do."

She said the first thing she focuses on with players is mindset.

"That to me trumps what their physical capabilities are," she said. "We all know softball is a game of failure. If you go one for three at bat, that's considered success."

Her approach doesn't change when the team faces a particularly tough opponent.

"I do try to remind the girls on any given day, we can hit better than them. We can play better than them. It's really making sure we play a full seven innings."

Her message is getting through.

"She has always told us, 'You are just as good. You need to play just as hard,' " said senior Naomi Cook of Hinsdale, who plays third base for Central. "That has instilled a level of confidence in all the players."

Zust also emphasizes to players that if they make a mistake, they need to let it go and move on to the next play. And never give up. That lesson will help prepare them for life - as it did her.

"I think by involving these girls in sports and teaching them it's OK to screw up, it's part of life, but you have to pick yourself up," she added. "I think softball does a great job of teaching that."

Cook echoed that message when asked about the best advice she's received from Zust, which is "The game doesn't remember like you will."

"If I were to make a mistake, she will be like, 'The game doesn't remember, so you have to do your best on your next play,' " Cook said.

Zust also makes each player feel valued and makes being part of the team enjoyable, Cook said.

"She really knows how to make every person feel appreciated for their skill or talent or personality they bring and is able to have a lot of fun while also being serious and putting in hard work," Cook said. "She is a great morale booster."

Contreras, who often takes younger players to watch the varsity games at Central, agreed.

"You can just see it when she coaches, the enthusiasm that she has for the game, for the players," he said.

Zust said she feels lucky to have the opportunity to work with the girls on the team.

"I always brag in school. I say, 'I coach the best kids in the building,' and I truly believe in my heart that to be true."

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean