Emily “DJ” Vinal had that “Wow” moment. You know, the one when everything you’ve been looking for in a college suddenly and unexpectedly falls into your lap.
“It’s a funny story,” Vinal says about how a college she hadn’t considered became front-and-center in her search and, in a matter of weeks, a commitment.
Vinal had attended the Head First camp in Long Island the past couple summers and, in the process, got to know one of the instructors, Brooke Kalman. Kalman was the head coach at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the time. MIT wasn’t necessarily on Vinal’s wish list of preferred schools but her relationship with Kalman would soon bear unexpected fruit.
“Coach Kalman texted me in early September and said she’d taken the head coaching position at Gettysburg College,” said Vinal. “She asked me if I’d consider going to Gettysburg. We had communicated the past two years but MIT wasn’t a school I was considering. When I got that text, I was like, Wow!”
Knowing little about Gettysburg, Vinal began to research what the Pennsylvania Division 3 school had to offer. “Academics comes first for me,” said Vinal, who was looking for a quality Health Sciences major with the ultimate goal of studying to become a physician’s assistant.
“Gettysburg was not on my radar,” she said, “but I discovered they have a great Health Sciences program. I found that Gettysburg provides the perfect academic rigor for me and I could still work softball into it. (The demands of) playing Division 1 ball, I felt, was going to be too hard to juggle with my academic plan.”
Still, a Health Sciences major with a P.A. path is an extremely demanding course load and Gettysburg is a high academic college. But Vinal has received a heavy dose of that rigor at her Pennsylvania high school, Mount St. Joseph Academy, so she isn’t one to be averse to hard school work.
Once Vinal reached the appropriate comfort level with Gettysburg, her softball discussions with Kalman intensified. In mid-October, October 14 to be exact, she called her soon-to-be college coach and committed.
“I had a good relationship with coach Kalman right away,” said Vinal. “We’re both from Pennsylvania. Gettysburg just really matched for me. I love how small it is.” Gettysburg has about 2,600 undergrads.
Vinal had applied to Duquesne, Drexel, Penn State and visited Pittsburgh. “I was worried about being able to get my major and softball together. I was debating that maybe I wouldn’t play softball. I was thinking for a time it wasn’t in the cards.”
Then Kalman reached out.
“I wasn’t getting that feeling from the other schools,” said Vinal. “I feel I have good intuition. When I got that text from coach Kalman, I felt good right away.”
Suddenly, Vinal found herself on the recruiting fast track to a commitment at Gettysburg.
“Coach Kalman gave me a tour (in September) and I met the girls on the team,” said Vinal. “Then I went back a second time and got a tour from one of the players. She told me everything about the school and that she was a health science major. I felt like I found my people, people who want to go into medicine, like me.”
Gettysburg has always been a match for Kalman, as well, who returns home in a sense, since she was graduated from the school in 2014.
Vinal lives in Erwinna, Pa., not far from Lambertville, N.J., and Mount St. Joseph is in Flourtown, a tiny (121 seniors), high-academic, all-girls, private school not necessarily known for its softball. But, while Vinal does play center field, shortstop and pitches for her high school team, her parents were thinking academics when they sent their daughter to Mount St. Joseph.
Vinal’s love for softball led her to Diamond Nation as a 10 year-old, and, eventually, to the Finch’s Aces program as a 12 year-old.
“When I first came to Diamond Nation I was taking pitching lessons from Ami (Iwicki),” said Vinal. “Then I joined the Aces two years later. Seven years with the Finch’s Aces and nine total years working with Diamond Nation coaches and instructors has Vinal primed for a huge final high school season and prepped for a successful college career.
“Emily started with us as a recreational player and has evolved into a very focused hard worker and soon-to-be college player,” says Iwicki, Diamond Nation’s assistant general manager and a softball star herself at Wagner and Hunterdon Central High School. “She is another great kid who I’ve had the pleasure of coaching and getting to know on a personal level. I couldn’t be more excited to watch her start her journey as a student-athlete. I know she will work hard and be successful.”
While Vinal continued to pitch for her high school team – she won’t this spring – she switched to the outfield her age 14 season with the Finch’s Aces and began to focus on her bat.
“Ami has helped me tremendously with my hitting,” says Vinal, who struggled last spring adjusting to the high school pitching she faces. That pitching is not quite what she sees all summer with the Aces.
“My timing was off and I wasn’t seeing the ball well,” she said. “I was getting into bad habits with my swing. I brought that into my summer with the Aces. Ami tweaked my swing a little because I wasn’t feeling comfortable. I’m back where I want to be now. My swing is level, my stance is stronger and I’m hitting the ball harder with more power.”
Vinal’s summer and fall numbers with the 18U Finch’s Aces team bear that out.
“DJ has what I would call sneaky power with the bat,” says Scott Cahill, the 18U Finch’s Aces head coach. “She has the ability to hit the deep ball and can also get the bunt down when needed.”
Cahill has coached Vinal every year since she joined the Aces as a 12 year-old. It was that year Christian Campbell, Diamond Nation’s softball coordinator, tagged her with the nickname “DJ.”
“Coach Campbell started calling me DJ that first year with the Aces,” says Vinal, “because DJs spin vinyl records. All of a sudden, my teammates started calling me DJ. Now my teammates think it’s weird when people call me Emily. I’m honestly surprised how the name stuck throughout the years.”
Cahill was Campbell’s assistant that 12U year then stayed with Vinal’s teams all the way up through 18U.
“I’ve coached DJ since she was a 12U player and it’s really been fun to be part of her development and growth,” says Cahill. “She is the definition of a workhorse. She’s always working to get better and is athletic enough to play infield and outfield, even though her primary position is outfield.”
Vinyl credits Cahill with creating an ideal atmosphere for that growth.
“Coach Cahill was one of my first coaches with the Aces,” Vinal said. “He creates a good environment where the team is able to have fun and, at the same time, focus on the task at hand. I appreciate how he has helped me throughout the years with my outfield and hitting skills. He has always been willing to listen whether it’s about something on the field or off the field.”
Playing college ball requires more than a simple commitment. It demands hard work, attention to detail and a willingness to sacrifice for your teammates.
“DJ checks all the boxes as a teammate,” says Cahill. And DJ has shown that in both her actions and words. “Anytime I needed her to rotate to the infield, she did it without hesitation. She’s always positive and supportive of her teammates and she can also be a goofball and keep us all laughing.”
And when the going gets difficult, Vinal is willing to step up, as well.
“We were playing in Colorado last year and she pulled a hamstring,” said Cahill. “She just taped herself up and got right back in the game. I couldn’t keep her off the field.”
Vinal closed out the 2022 season in style, batting .412 from the middle of the Aces’ batting order during a 28-game fall season. She reached base at a stunning .474 clip and boasted an OPS of .964. That was a bit of an uptick from a productive summer that saw her bat .333, score 22 runs and reach base at a .411 clip in 36 games.
Vinal will be joining a Centennial Conference program that has had success in the past. The Bullets earned a conference title and NCAA berth as recently as two years ago and were 19-18 in 2022. The program appears in good hands with its new mentor, Kalman, whose 2023 squad is out of the gate at an impressive 6-2-1.
Where Vinal lands on the Bullets squad next fall could be determined as much by her talent as her multidimensional abilities.
“I want to be versatile,” said Vinal, who while playing primarily in the corner outfield spots for the Aces, embraced the challenge when Cahill moved her to second base to fill a need.”
Vinal has proven, too, that she can elevate her game to the level of her competition, such as during the Aces’ summer trips to Colorado, Tennessee and Massachusetts, a fall trip to Atlanta and the team’s winter trip to Arizona in January.
“I really enjoy playing against higher skill level girls,” she said. “I love the challenge. To be honest, you feel a little more pressure but that helps your focus. I think the pressure you feel is your body’s way of preparing you for the higher level of play.”
Vinal faces a different kind of adjustment this spring since the high school pitching she faces is a tick behind the velocity she’s accustomed to in the Aces’ rugged schedule.
“It’s about being on time,” she said. “I’m so used to faster pitching, I have to slow things down, wait on the ball and make sure I see it.”
Then Vinal will be back for her seventh and final summer run with the Aces as she fine-tunes her game for her freshman year at Gettysburg.
“I want to stay fresh this summer and prepare for my college season,” said Vinal. “I also want to play with my Aces teammates one more time. Some of them are my best friends.”
Expect more “Wows” coming this summer and fall as DJ spins her way toward Gettysburg.