Duke Softball's One Small Act of Kindness Spreads

Duke Employee & Professor Appreciation Day so touched one instructor that she brought the concept to her son’s baseball team

A Duke instructor stands on the sidelines of a softball field among three Duke softball players before a softball game

“I was just so touched that one of my students thought enough of me to pick me out of all of her teachers,” Finnegan said. “As a teacher, we're here for the students. But it was just so nice to get the invitation and know that I meant something to this student.”

In truth, the invitation wasn’t the start.

A Kind Instructor

For Duke catcher Kelly Torres, it began with Finnegan’s Level 2 Yoga class in Fall 2023. That class started at 8:30 a.m. and somehow Torres never wanted to miss it.

Three Duke softball players stand on the sidelines of the field, arms extended before an embrace.
Duke softball catcher Kelly Torres (No. 3) says after inviting Duke instructor Maria Finnegan to Employee & Professor Appreciation Day, "I found more joy seeing the joy on her face." Photo courtesy of Duke Softball

“She made it like you wanted to get up early and go to yoga class,” said Torres, who graduated this spring and now is playing for the Texas Monarchs in the Women’s Professional Fastpitch league.

Finnegan created a community, Torres said, where students not only enjoyed the physical and mental benefits of yoga, but also “created space for us all.” Finnegan often connects by sharing personal stories during her class as she encourages students to be honest and kind to themselves.

“She's probably the closest I’ve ever been to a professor,” Torres said. “She still reaches out to me and keeps up with my softball. And she's just very sweet.”

When Duke Softball Coach Marissa Young told the team that they were hosting the appreciation day this spring – an annual event for Duke’s softball, baseball, wrestling, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s lacrosse teams – Torres knew whom she would invite.

A Kind Invitation

Young said teams she’s been a part of have long hosted such appreciation days, but she recognizes the value even more at Duke.

“The reason it's even more important for me here at Duke is just to continue to close the gap between academics and athletics,” Young said. “To me, it’s really important to bring those two worlds together because there's that mutual respect, and the professors are such an integral part of our kids’ experience here at Duke. It opens their eyes a little bit to who the students are beyond the classroom.”

As part of the honor, professors observed a team practice, and could play catch with student-athletes and take batting practice. The communication and mutual support from players on a team that went on to finish 52-9 with a Women’s College World Series appearance was clear, Finnegan said.

A line of Duke softball players and professors stand with their hands on the shoulder of the person in front of them during pre-game ceremonies
Duke softball players and those invited to Employee & Professor Appreciation Day stand on the field during pre-game ceremonies. Photo courtesy of Maria Finnegan

“It was so obvious once I saw their success that it starts from those moments,” Finnegan said.

At the March 2 appreciation day game against Syracuse, Finnegan and other teachers walked onto the field with the athletes who invited them. They stood in line, hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them during the national anthem and were announced to the crowd.

“Working with the students is just such a gift,” Finnegan said. “Having that experience to be on the field and to feel appreciated in that moment – it was truly a highlight of my career.”

Torres saw that reflected in Finnegan’s face.

“Usually, you don't have a professor come to your game or practice,” Torres said, “and I found more joy seeing the joy on her face.”

Sitting in the stands during the game and still glowing from the experience, Finnegan texted her son’s high school baseball coach.

“We have to do this,” she said. “I know we can do this.”

The Kindness Grows

Finnegan calls herself the “Baseball Mom” for her son Quinn’s Cedar Ridge High School varsity team in Hillsborough, often taking the lead in parent communication and leading events off the field.

That text to Cedar Ridge baseball coach Bryson Massey earned a quick reply: Yes.

A line of Cedar Ridge High School baseball players stands with teachers during pre-game ceremonies of the Teacher Appreciation Day game.
Cedar Ridge High School baseball players and teachers stand next to the field during pre-game ceremonies during their Teacher Appreciation Day game in April. Photo courtesy of Maria Finnegan

About 20 Cedar Ridge teachers came to the baseball team’s Teacher Appreciation Day game in late April. They followed Duke’s softball blueprint precisely, walking onto the field pre-game where they were announced to the crowd.

“Teachers work so hard and they might not always get the recognition or appreciation that they so deserve,” Finnegan said. “I know how I felt at Duke, so I thought if they can feel that way, why not make their day a little brighter?”

Adam Reyes is a social studies teacher who just finished his fourth year teaching at Cedar Ridge, and said he’d never been to a high school sporting evet until he was invited by the baseball team. It opened his eyes.

“It kind of reminded us that this is also our job: Be present for these things,” he said. “Being in this profession, you don't always realize a lot of the community ambassador aspects of it – like going to games and really getting involved with the kids and their passions and their interests. You realize what it means to them.”

A Duke instructor stands on the sidelines of a softball field among three Duke softball players before a softball game
Duke instructor Maria FInnegan, center in cap, says her invitation to Duke Employee & Professor Appreciation Day from softball player Kelly Torres, No. 3, was among the most meaningful moments during her time at Duke. Photo courtesy of Duke Softball

After that game, Reyes and a crew of teachers went to a handful of other games – not only for baseball, but for soccer, too. Finnegan said Teacher Appreciation Day is now an annual event for the baseball team. She’s planning on starting it for her daughter’s basketball team next year, too.

“My ‘Mom heart’ and my ‘teacher heart’ were both so full, because this is what we wanted it to be like – I wanted them to feel special and appreciated and honored,” she said.

Reyes likens all of it to tiny ripples in the ocean that converge to form one mammoth wave.

“What Duke softball is doing – not only on the field, but off the field – is awesome,” said Massey, the baseball coach. “And what Coach Young is doing at Duke is something special because she's doing things that are not only affecting Duke athletics and Duke teachers, but they're also affecting the community that's around and giving ideas for other people to show appreciation.”

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