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Army Reservist Called to Iraq First Has a Season to Finish as Girls Softball Coach

By Ken Sickenger
Journal Staff Writer
    Pat Volpert will soon trade in his coach's cap for a soldier's helmet. Volpert views his 16-and-under girls softball team as a family, serving as its coach, counselor, big brother and sometimes surrogate dad.
    But he's also a lieutenant in the Army Reserves, and he's been called to active duty.
    Now he's juggling getting his team— the Heat— ready for the 2005 Fastpitch 16U World Series, starting July 24 in Independence, Mo., and getting ready to serve in Iraq.
    Volpert reported for duty Friday at Fort Bliss, Texas— hours after he led the Heat in a sometimes emotional practice and scrimmage Thursday evening at Rio Grande High School.
    "The Army's really short on officers right now," Volpert said Thursday with a shrug. "They're pulling people from everywhere, and my name got called."
    "I'm sad. I don't want him to go," Melissa Ortiz, a sophomore-to-be at West Mesa, said Thursday.
    Iraq won't be entirely unfamiliar territory for Volpert, 36, who served in Kuwait with the Marines during the Gulf War. He recalls the searing heat, burning oil wells and one-sided tank battles he encountered as his unit advanced through Kuwait.
    But he knows things will be different in Iraq.
    "My memories of the Gulf War are that it was like a shooting gallery," he said. "(The Iraqi troops) had no plans, no coordination, no reinforcements.
    "Now the insurgents have embedded themselves. They're attacking convoys. It's scarier."
    Volpert's life is different this time, too. He's leaving two teenage daughters and a dugout full of young admirers.
    Cibola sophomore Sofia Ayala said, "I think the whole team's going to miss him. We're probably going to worry until he gets back, too."
World Series
    Thursday wasn't Volpert's final farewell to the Heat. Through a little wheeling and dealing with the Army, he will rejoin the team for its upcoming World Series berth.
    "I asked the Army for permission right away," Volpert said, "and they were willing to work with me.
    "I would have felt horrible to have brought the girls this far and then missed the World Series."
    To pull it off, Volpert had to report Friday— two weeks early— to begin training, completing paperwork and other preparations for his deployment. He will miss this weekend's USSSA state championship tournament but will return long enough to accompany the Heat to Missouri.
    He will head back to Fort Bliss in early August and is scheduled to leave Aug. 12 for Iraq, where he will serve in the quartermaster corps. The orders, he says, are for a two-year deployment.
    Volpert, who worked as a full-time substitute teacher at Albuquerque High and was an assistant softball coach at Rio Grande, says the Heat will be in capable hands in his absence. Assistant coaches Rick Trujillo, Bo Reeder and José Ayala will simply take on greater roles.
    Still, Volpert's mentoring style will be missed.
    "He talks to the girls about life and they look up to him," said Irene Ossenbeck, whose daughter, Naomi Aguilar, plays for the Heat. "He sincerely cares about these girls."
'Like sisters'
    An Albuquerque native who played baseball at Highland High, Volpert was an assistant baseball coach under Mike Robertson at Sandia from 1995-99. He took up softball coaching when his younger daughter, Gabriella, began playing the sport.
    Now 13, Gabriella is sitting this season out while she recovers from back surgery. She still attends the Heat's daily practices and cheers the team on from the dugout.
    She laughed when asked about her father's decision to coach softball.
    "I didn't want him to," Gabriella said. "He'd tell everyone my nicknames; it was embarrassing."
    But Gabriella has grown to enjoy having her father as a coach. And like him, she has come to see the Heat as a family.
    "We're all like sisters," she said. "We go to a lot of different schools, but it didn't take very long for us to get really close."
    While many local club teams are built around players from a single high school program, the Heat is not. The team includes multiple players from Cibola, La Cueva, Albuquerque High, Rio Grande and Gallup with additional players from West Mesa, Socorro, Belen and Laguna-Acoma.
    Volpert embraces his team's diversity, as do the Heat players and their parents.
    "This team is scrappy; it's got such soul and spirit," said Ramona Ayala, Sofia's mother. "The girls have really meshed, and Pat encourages that. He's created a fine balance."
    Volpert hopes the Heat will serve as a support system for Gabriella while he's gone. He shares custody of Gabriella and her older sister, Elena, who will live with their mother, Ramona Medina, full-time during his deployment.
    Gabriella says she plans to communicate with her father as often as possible via e-mail and other means while he's in Iraq. She'll pass on messages to and from her teammates, too.
    "My dad and I talked about it, and I know it's very dangerous over there," Gabriella said, taking a moment to collect herself.
    "He just has to be careful. Our softball family's gonna change for a while, but he'll coach us again when he gets back."