Bianca Smith ready to put ‘first’ title away in second season as Red Sox coach

Bianca Smith, Minor League Coach of the Boston Red Sox, poses for a portrait during a spring training team workout.
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With mere weeks to go before the Boston Red Sox’s rookie baseball team kicks off its 2022 season, Bianca Smith is well aware that her new position as a full-time coach for the Florida Complex League club is another milestone in her trailblazing career path.

She just doesn’t want anyone to linger too long over the moment.

“If anything, the title (of ‘first’) should show that we haven’t progressed as far as we think we have,” said the 30-year-old Smith, who first made headlines in January 2021 when she was named the first Black female coach in professional baseball history.

“The fact that it’s 2022, and we’re still getting excited about the first time a woman does something – and this game has been around for over 100 years. Like, that’s really sad, actually.”

Smith starts this season with the FCL Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla., with a new title, minor league coach. After her start last year as a part-time hitting coach, Smith told On Her Turf that this new title more aptly reflects her role on the player development staff, which has expanded to include everything from batting practice and baserunning, to infield and outfield practice.

“I think the Red Sox purposely titled it as ‘minor league coach’ just so I could do multiple things,” said Smith, who describes herself as a “utility” coach – ready and willing to jump in whenever, wherever needed. “And it’s pretty cool being able to run different areas. I’m that type of person who likes having responsibility over one or two areas. But I also like being able to be involved in others, even if I’m not the expert, because part of it is I want to learn more.”

Keeping multiple irons in the fire while also soaking in all available knowledge has been a hallmark of Smith’s journey into professional baseball, which she fell in love with as a kid growing up in Grapevine, Texas. Her late mother, Dawn Patterson, was a devoted New York Yankees fan and passed that passion on to her daughter.

While attending Dartmouth, her parents’ alma mater, Smith got one of her first experiences to participate in the sport when she joined the school’s club team as an upperclassman. Despite the fact she already was a cheerleader and member of the varsity softball team, Smith was not missing out on the chance to play and went to great lengths to keep it hidden from her softball coach.

“The baseball team always practiced after softball, so I kind of stayed back acting like I was putting my stuff away,” remembers Smith. “And then the baseball team would walk in, and I would pull all my baseball stuff out.

“I had two rules. One: I didn’t feel the infield grounders during practice – if I get a short hop to the face, my coach is gonna get (mad). And (second): Do not hit me during BP, because I don’t want to have to explain any bruises or anything to my coach that didn’t come from cheer.”

Smith graduated in 2012, and her mom died in April 2013, just nine months after being diagnosed with a rare cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma, which was found in her head and neck. It was an aha moment for Smith, who found herself inspired by words from her mother still ringing in her ear.

“My mom always said that you spend most of your life working, so I needed to find the thing that I love to do,” Smith told the New York Times.

Four months later, Smith was enrolled at Case Western University in Ohio, where she earned dual degrees in business and law with the intent of becoming an MLB general manager. Not surprisingly, she took on duties from 2013-17 as the university baseball team’s first director of baseball operations.

An internship with the Cincinnati Reds in 2019 proved to be a turning point for Smith, who spent any down time from her job in the baseball operations department in the stands during practice. She told an assistant hitting coach she was interested in coaching, and when she offered to help, he agreed. Manager David Bell suggested Smith bring her glove to practice, and a new passion was born.

While trying to land her first paid coaching position, Smith juggled up to eight jobs at one point. Among them: Sorting packages at a UPS warehouse, packing online orders at Target, driving for Uber Eats, Texas Rangers’ tour guide and youth academy coach, and ticket taker for F.C. Dallas. For extra baseball experience, she was a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Dallas.

As part of her job search, Smith said she contacted more than 100 Division I college coaches and got responses from just 26. She had one job offer, but the compensation didn’t justify the move. And out of the nearly 40 positions in college baseball operations that she applied for, she got three interviews but no offers.

Last month in the major leagues, San Francisco Giants coach Alyssa Nakken made history as the first female coach on the field in a regular-season game. The minor leagues have shown progress as well, and in January, the Red Sox hired Katie Krall as a developmental coach for Double-A Portland. Also in January, Rachel Balkovec became the first female manager in the minors, taking over at the Low-A Tampa Tampa, while Caitlyn Callahan was hired by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a developmental coach for its club in Bradenton, Fla.

“I think there’s definitely a way where we can acknowledge it without making it seem like it’s such a surprising thing to happen,” said Smith. “We should expect this at this point. So, once it’s happened, it’s happened. Let it go. Great – we did it. Now let’s keep going. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep doing our job – you know, what we were hired for.”

But as the coaching space continues to evolve, Smith knows people are interested in her opinion on how these dynamics are progressing. However, her primary goal remains clear:

“I don’t care about being the first Black woman,” she said. “I kind of don’t like the label – because I just want to be known as a coach. I don’t want to be known as the first Black woman coach; I want to be known as a great coach, who knows what she’s doing, and is in it for her players.

“That’s really all I care about, that’s the title I’m trying to get – not ‘first Black woman coach.’ Honestly, if I finished my career, and that’s all I’m known for, then I did something wrong.”


Peacock’s new Sunday morning Major League Baseball package, MLB Sunday Leadoff, kicks off this Sunday, May 8, with the Boston Red Sox hosting the Chicago White Sox from Fenway Park live at 11:30 a.m. ET on Peacock and NBC.

On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report. 

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”