Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Sydney Gerbracht Steps Into Justin's World

While the softball broadcasting field unfortunately does not offer the same opportunities as some other sports, there are nevertheless some bright and shining stars in the industry; you just might have to dig a bit deeper to find them.

To see Houston alum Syd Gerbracht in action, you'd have to pay for some Conference USA online broadcasts or some Southland Conference matchups. The Cougar alum stays regionally close to her collegiate home, but has occupied the color commentary chair for a variety of teams, leagues, and divisions.

A two-time all-conference all-academic selection and three times selected to the Conference USA Commissioner's Honor Roll (prior to Houston's move to the American conference), Gerbracht's intelligence and success on the field, often in a designated player/preferred pinch-hitter role, have already translated well to the broadcast booth.

Syd and I talked extensively about her already-blossoming broadcasting career, including specifically about her current endeavors, future plans, and her analysis of, among other things, the Cougars' offseason head coaching change.

Justin's World: How did you get started playing softball?
Syd Gerbracht: My dad had taught my sister and I how to throw, catch, and hit as soon as our coordination would allow. My first love was soccer – my mom signed me up, without my knowledge, for softball at age nine – and I was furious. Two days before tryouts, my dad took me out to the diamond and taught me how to field a ground ball, worked on the mechanics of my throw and swing, and that was that. I remember my 4th grade teacher wrote in my yearbook how much she got a kick out of my practicing my pitching motion during recess. It was an all-consuming type of love, as sports tend to be when you’re young and you’ve caught the athlete bug.

JWOS: What led you to UH as ‘your spot’?
Syd: Growing up in Southern California, I was involved in both elite soccer and softball. As I got older, however, I saw that NCAA soccer (unfortunately) doesn’t get nearly the coverage that NCAA softball and the Women’s College World Series does. Meanwhile, my passion for softball overtook that for soccer, but I didn’t end up playing club softball until later in high school. I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to be in broadcasting, softball was the sport that would be the vehicle to realizing those dreams. My journey to UH was not an easy one. By the time I figured out exactly what I wanted to do and formulated a plan to do it, I was a junior in high school – which put me at a significant disadvantage because by that time, the majority of recruiting classes had been filled. I remember having Stanford and Texas watch me pitch as a senior and walking away once they found out how old I was. That was a huge bummer, especially since I wasn’t looking for a full ride – I just wanted a shot. I think a lot of schools miss out on great players because they assume that every kid is looking to get an athletic scholarship. While that, of course, is the ideal, I can’t tell you how frustrating it was to get passed up when I had the grades and test scores to get academic scholarships and as long as there was the opportunity to earn more as my career progressed, I was game. 

The voicemail from Coach Holas is still on my answering machine at my parent’s house in San Diego. I remember our conversation and my excitement; She asked me “Are you serious about this? I’m willing to go all in with you – but only if you’re 100% all in too.” Everything happened really quickly after that – I had applied, was accepted, had talked to academic advisors for the athletic department and for the Honors College, and that was that. I was still in the works with other schools at that point, but Houston came through with a sense of urgency. Who doesn’t want to go to a school that will do whatever it takes to get you to go there? That was the deciding factor for me. It made all the difference that Houston went to great lengths to show me that they wanted me on the squad, even though I was the fifth in the recruiting class and not a traditional recruit.

JWOS: What is your favorite memory from your playing career?
Syd: I have a few from every year – I’d say my top three would start with the entire regional/super regional experience in the 2011 season. We were maybe 6 outs from a WCWS – that was wild. Haley Outon and I talk about that a lot actually, how close we actually were that year – she’s remained one of my best friends from Houston. I had a three-run shot in 2012 during a home game vs. University of Louisiana-Lafayette to put us back in the game. My last one would probably be a two-run triple vs UCF my senior year. Quite honestly, I thought it was going out, but their outfield is huge with a really high fence. Mackenzie Audas was pitching, and she was always such a great competitor so I loved going head to head with her throughout my career. We had to tip our hat since she had a no-hitter against us that same weekend. 

JWOS: As a communications major, was broadcasting and sports media always the field you wanted to go into after graduation?
Syd: I found out very quickly that I didn’t want anything to do with news – 80% of the news cycle is pretty negative, and while I respect those who are fighting the good fight in that realm of journalism, it wasn’t for me. I knew I wanted to be in sports, technology, or entertainment, and sports, due to my involvement with athletics my entire life and my playing career, was the most natural progression.

JWOS: Who is your role model, either in your chosen field or in life in general, and how does that person inspire you?
Syd: The first people that come to mind are my parents. That sounds cliché, but it’s a natural choice for me because while they have always been supportive, they have challenged my sister and I to go after what we truly want. My dad told me when I was 15 that “You get what you settle for”. He is full of one-liners, but that’s one that has stuck with me. He encourages me to embrace the suck and be bold in my pursuits, personal, professional, or otherwise. Meanwhile, my mom is one of those behind the scenes people—the introvert to my father’s extrovert. She just handles anything that comes her way with grace, never makes excuses, has a quiet confidence about her, and truly has a passion for people. I’d like to think I emulate that to some degree.

JWOS: Tell me about how you got the ‘gig’ of doing color commentary for the Southland conference online broadcasts, as well as how your other broadcasting ‘gigs’ came about.
Syd: I took advantage of my last year in grad school to get as much broadcast/on-camera experience I could, so I got involved with Houston Athletics once my playing career was over. This past year I did in-game hosting (live promotions) for football, basketball, and then color commentary for Houston softball. I had a ‘gig’ with the American Digital Network for a game in the Houston-UCF series and was able to both call the game and interview UCF players and coaches with my PBP Lincoln Rose. After that, I was referred to Chris Mycoskie, and he and I worked together on the Southland Conference Championship for softball and a few for Southland Baseball during their conference tournament a few weeks later!

JWOS: What is your ultimate career goal in the broadcasting world?
Syd: My short-term goal is to split time as an analyst and an in-studio host. Ultimately, I’d like to own and operate my own production company and produce my own show.

JWOS: If you could be in the booth to broadcast one sporting event in the world, what sport would you like to call and when?
Syd: It would have to be a tie between the WCWS, Olympic softball, and the World Series. 

JWOS: Do you feel like having been a player so recently helps you in your analysis in the booth? Why or why not?
Syd: Absolutely. While the very nature of college softball has evolved throughout my career (in terms of player development, athleticism, recruiting, etc.), at it’s very core, it is the same game we’ve been playing since we were kids. It can be easy to forget that, even as a player or coach. Having played so recently definitely gives me an edge because there are girls in the game that I have played against, so I know their strengths and weaknesses, their presence on the field, what it was like to play against them. While that won’t always be the case, it certainly gives me an advantage in the booth.

I’ve given lessons since 2011, but I really got into coaching this past year for a high school here in Houston, and I think that has given me an edge that other analysts might not have. You see so many different ages, commitment levels and skill levels, and that challenges you as a coach. In the booth, I’m able to appreciate all the work and commitment my coaches made to making us better because that is the same commitment I make to making my kids better. Being on the other side of the line gives me the “why” behind the coaching decisions I see as an analyst, from the starting lineup to those decisions made in the heat of the moment.

What sets me apart, ultimately, is that my story was not a fairytale one. I have been a pitcher, an outfielder, a DH, and a pinch hitter. I have been an everyday starter, a captain, and a player that has split time and clawed my way into the starting lineup, and sometimes, for at-bats. I have been a walk-on and a scholarship athlete. My favorite part of all of that, though, is that I am confident that across the board, my former teammates and coaches would say that, with the game on the line, they would want the bat in my hand. Being that clutch, catalyst player, the one that can light a fire under the non-believer; being the player where fans shift in their seats whether it’s my first at-bat of the game or a pinch hit at-bat in the 7th inning; and being that player where fans come up to you and say “You so much fun to watch”. That is my story, and it has made all the difference. 

JWOS: What have been some of the biggest learning curves for you personally as a broadcaster? Conversely, what have been some of the things that you’ve found come naturally to you in the field?
Syd: Live, one-take, one chance to nail your spot was the hardest for me at first. I made my biggest mistakes in front of 40,000 people. Talk about a humbling experience and a wake-up call to what I needed to dedicate time to mastering. Settling into my rhythm as an analyst came relatively easily – after all, I had a lifetime of experiences as a player and years as a coach to draw from. Constructing quality interview questions came the most naturally, and I anticipate that is due to years of watching sports and knowing what questions I would ask professional and collegiate athletes if I had the chance. 

JWOS: Give me your thoughts, as an analyst, on UH’s coaching change this year, including coach Holas leaving; Kristin Vesely taking over at the helm; and the big names she brought in on her staff.
Syd: Kyla Holas did an incredible job in her 16 year career at Houston building a program that could come in on any given year and give some of the best programs in the nation a run for their money. There were years where Houston has fluctuated between being the underdog or having a target on their back. Ultimately, what she built is an incredible foundation for the next generation of Houston coaches to build from and run with.

Kristin Vesely brought in an All-American, all-pro staff. Every one of the remarkable women she has brought to Houston has the experience and knowledge to share with the young squad they currently have. The coaches themselves are young, and that was one of the things Coach Ves and I have had multiple conversations about; each of these coaches still has a tangible, contagious passion that electrifies the girls. Two A&M Aggies, starting with Megan Gibson-Loftin, who was a decorated pitcher during her career, oversees the pitching staff, with multiple pitchers with All-American potential. Jessica Schults, having won a national championship as a Sooner Player and as a Sooner coach, has experience on both sides of the line. What more could you want? Cassie Tysarcyk, another Texas A&M All-American, whom I played against, rounds them out nicely as the volunteer assistant. As a staff, they are a force to be reckoned with, so it will be interesting to see how that translates on the field for the 2017 season.

JWOS: Last one! Say you were stranded on a deserted island for an undetermined period of time, but you can take three things with you. No boats or phones, but anything else tangible goes. What would you take?
Syd: I never know what the answer to this question is supposed to be an indication of, but my practical side says a toolbox (full of tools), water purification system, and rope.  

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