Former McNeese softball star Piancastelli talks Athletes Unlimited, Olympics & more

Erika Piancastelli has been busy since playing her final collegiate game in 2018.

The former McNeese State University star catcher completed her collegiate career as a four-time First Team All-Southland Conference selection and still holds a slew of conference records.

Born in Italy, Piancastelli moved to California as a child and would later find herself in Lake Charles, La. for college ball. It wasn’t long before she made herself at home in southern Louisiana.

From 2015-18, Piancastelli accumulated 253 career hits, 75 homers, 212 runs batted in and a .401 batting average for the Cowgirls softball program. Her No. 16 jersey is now retired by the McNeese program.

Two years removed from those McNeese days and Piancastelli is still heavily involved in the sport of softball at the highest level.

Between being a member of the Italian National Team set to take part in the Summer Olympics next year, and joining fellow Olympians and professional softball players in the upstart league Athletes Unlimited, Piancastelli has stayed close to the softball diamond this summer.

Athletes Unlimited

Jade Rhodes, one of the first four players who signed with Athletes Unlimited, reached out to Piancastelli because they were looking for catchers. From the very first meeting with Cheri Kempf, Erika was sold on the league.

“Jade Rhodes reached out because they were looking for catchers … that’s how my name was put out there,” said Piancastelli. “Unfortunately, she ended up getting her dream job offer so she had to leave, but she’s the one that got me involved with the league.”

Each of the 56 players in the league earn individual points based on their performance and their team’s overall performance and, each week, the top four in the individual standings serve as team captains. A weekly draft every Tuesday night means rosters change on a weekly basis, which adds an interesting wrinkle to the league’s competitiveness.

The official AU website (auprosports.com) describes the upstart professional league as the following:

“Get ready for six weeks of nonstop action in the same city, where the teams change weekly and every moment is an opportunity to win. The top four players become new captains each week and draft their teams from scratch for each week’s games.

The best parts of fantasy are now brought to life. In our new radical scoring system, every player can lose or win points during every game. Athletes score points as individuals and as a team to win MVP titles and cash bonuses.”

“It’s amazing, I’ve had a blast,” Piancastelli said of the league. “They take very good care of us and just to know it’s brand new and is a stepping stone to those of us in softball — especially us professional players — it gives us a better chance to play and get paid what we deserve … it’s just a nice, entertaining thing to happen in the softball world and I think it’s going to get a lot more people involved in the sport.”

Every game of the six-week inaugural season has been played at The Ballpark at Rosemont in Illinois.

After the first three weeks of play, Erika finds herself in eighth in the standings and is tied for the lead league in homers, with four.

“It’s actually kind of shocking,” she said. “Not that I wasn’t expecting it, but the way I feel when playing has been shocking to me just because I thought going in to this I would feel a lot of pressure and be nervous to play.”

Week 4 of the season kicks off tomorrow afternoon. Games have been televised live on ESPN3 and CBS Sports.

Check out the full schedule at auprosports.com.

Tokyo Olympics

For as long as she can remember, Piancastelli has been around the game of softball.

Her mother, Loredana Auletta, played for the Italian National Team in the 2000 Olympics. Two decades later, Piancastelli is following in her footsteps as a member of the Italian National Team in the Tokyo Olympics — same position, same jersey number.

“I’ve just always been around the softball field when I was younger,” she said. “I was born in Italy, so I lived there a few years, and I was just always involved in the softball world and with my mom having been through that, she knew the coaches, so I reached out to do a tryout in 2014 while I was just starting my college career. Ever since then I’ve been on the team and it’s been a blast and I’ve grown so much from it.

Though the COVID-19 outbreak pushed the Olympics — which were set to take place this summer — back a year, Erika will be more than ready to represent her home country of Italy when the games tentatively kick off in the summer of 2021.

That dream of playing in the Olympics almost didn’t happen, though.

Following the 2008 games, baseball and softball were removed from the Olympics and Piancastelli thought her dream was impossible. Next year’s summer games marks the return for both sports.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to follow in my mom’s footsteps,” Piancastelli said. “Even before they took softball out of the Olympics, I always wanted to follow in her footsteps — I wanted to go to the Olympics just like her, I wanted to play the same position, wear the same number. Then they took it out of the Olympics, so my dream kind of changed a little bit but then the moment they put it back I knew this was my chance … I’ve been going down the right path, for sure.”

As of right now, she’s supposed to attend a training camp with the Italian National Team in November to prepare for next summer.

Impact of COVID-19 Outbreak

In the midst of her Olympic journey and her inaugural season with AU, there’s been a global pandemic that has kept everyone inside their own homes since March.

Erika says she was quarantined with her parents in Italy for much of the summer and, though she couldn’t get out on the diamond for months, she found ways to stay in physical and mental shape for softball while stuck inside her house.

“I was in Italy for my quarantine and Italy was very strict with their COVID rules, so I was actually stuck indoors for almost three months,” she said. “So, for me, my training took a big turn and instead of it being more physical it became 100 percent mental and I had to just really train my mind and find new ways around the house to stay in shape. Even though it wasn’t softball stuff — I couldn’t hit, I couldn’t throw — I was trying to get my body right for the moment that I could get back outside.”

Luckily for Erika, she had a decent sized living room and was able to do exercises such as band and body workouts and she was able to throw (“very short distances,” as she says) and work on air swings around her house.

“I was with my mom and dad and we drove ourselves crazy, because I don’t remember the last time I was stuck in the house for 24 hours with my parents,” she said jokingly. “It definitely drove me crazy a little bit but it’s definitely some family bonding time that you don’t really get to have on a daily basis, so I was just trying to take it all in and enjoy every moment — especially now that I haven’t seen them in almost a month and a half.”

Legacy at McNeese State

Piancastelli holds all-time offensive conference records across the board, including runs scored (28), doubles (62; tied for first), home runs (75), RBI (228), total bases (548) and walks (229).

When, just a year later, the school retired her jersey number in a ceremony on the field, Piancastelli was shocked and excited to be honored in front of the Lake Charles community.

“I look back sometimes and I’m just super grateful for the opportunity that I had,” she said. “When I was younger and I played softball I never thought I would have so much success in college, I wanted to play because I love the sport.

“Going to McNeese really changed me, not only as a player but also as an individual. I hated the gym before coming and now I love it. I have a different view of the game and I’m super grateful I was able to find the college that allowed me to become the player and person I am today.”

When Hurricane Laura decimated the Lake Charles area surrounding McNeese in late August, Piancastelli couldn’t help but think about the community and her friends.

“Thankfully everyone I know was safe and didn’t get too much damage, the city of Lake Charles though was hit really, really hard,” she explained. “They’re all working really hard together, and Louisiana is such a big family and they always come together … I knew the moment I saw the damage that they would all come together and support one another because I know how strong they are as a community.”

Social media advocacy

Erika has used her platform of more than 13,000 followers on Instagram and over 2,000 Twitter followers to advocate for equal rights and the Black Lives Matter movement, as have many professional sports leagues and athletes across the sports world over the last couple of months.

“I’m super grateful to have the platform that I have with my social media accounts,” she said. “A lot of people have reached out to me, and I’ve been able to do a lot of research and reach out to foundations and donate … I’m happy that I’m able to be an ally and use my voice to support my teammates, make them feel comfortable every single day and to say that I stand with them no matter what.

“It’s great to see all of the sports leagues standing up and getting involved. It’s very heartwarming to see. In the back of my mind I’m like, ‘it’s about time’ that everyone starts speaking up. I feel like maybe before people didn’t feel comfortable or feel like they had the right space, but now with everything that’s been going on I think a lot of people feel like this is the perfect time. It’s been great to see a lot of athletes and a lot of teams be able to say that they support their players.”

Photo courtesy: Athletes Unlimited

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For more information regarding the 2020 Athletes Unlimited softball season visit auprosports.com.

To follow Erika on her career journey, check out her Instagram (@urka_20) or Twitter (@Uurka_20) accounts.

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