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Donna Papa reflects on career as UNC softball coach after retiring in May

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Head coach Donna J. Papa talks to the UNC softball team before the softball game against Elon at Anderson Stadium on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. UNC beat Elon 9-5.

On May 25, North Carolina softball coach Donna Papa announced that she was retiring after 38 seasons as the head coach. 

Papa leaves the program with the second most wins by an active coach in college softball, five ACC regular-season championships and as a five-time ACC Coach of the Year. Along with these accolades, Papa secured an ACC championship win in 2001 and has appeared in the NCAA tournament 15 times. She was also inducted into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2012. 

Before reaching these heights, Papa shares her first experiences with the sport: days with her cousins, an open field and a baseball in hand. While open fields eventually turned into softball fields in high school, and then stadiums during her collegiate career, Papa always possessed a passion for playing sports that has continued to this day. 

Although her love for softball has always been there, her journey to becoming a coach was more difficult. Papa’s father began coaching high school-level football and basketball before she was born. Rather than persuade Papa to follow in his footsteps, he tried to convince her not to become a coach. 

“For a man to raise a family, you know, the pay isn’t that great,” Papa said. “I wound up being an interior design major for a couple of years. And I told my dad, 'This is not my passion and I really want to coach.'” 

Even with his fears, Papa’s father remained supportive as she got her early start at St. John’s University followed by a position at Susquehanna University where Papa was the head volleyball coach, head softball coach and physical education teacher. 

“You wear about 10 hats at a division three school, but it was my first full-time job, you know, with benefits and all of that," Papa said. "So, for me, that is exciting too." 

After a successful run at Susquehanna, Papa landed the head coach position at UNC during the 1985-86 season where she was successful throughout her entire 38-season stretch. During her tenure at the helm of the UNC softball team, Papa totaled 1,339 wins. 

“You stay with some of the things that are the cores of your program and I think some of the cores really have been passion, pride and excellence," Papa said. "I think trying to keep that infused in our program and making sure that every year you stay current."

While Papa is proud of her success on the field, she is most thankful for her experiences and the people that she has been able to connect with from it.

“I’m really going into retirement going to really miss the relationships more than anything,” Papa said.

Redshirt senior Abby Settlemyre and senior outfielder Bri Stubbs both feel like they have developed close relationships with Papa during their time at Carolina since meeting her. 

“Coach P has been a really big part of who I have become as a person and a player,” Settlemyre said. 

Stubbs had similar things to say about her relationship with Papa. 

“I could not thank her enough for all the confidence that she has built in me over the past four years,” Stubbs said. 

From being on the receiving end of various pranks to learning new dances with her players, Settlemyre and Stubbs emphasized that Papa has left a lasting legacy on the program that they will miss. 

As Papa’s time as head coach has drawn to a close, Papa described her tenure at UNC as a challenge.

“I was challenged every day to be better and to work and try to keep up with the people around me,” Papa said. “I was challenged to be the best coach that I could be and the best person that I could be to my team.”

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com.

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