By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register
Sept. 2, 2019
Lisa Birocci liked the thought of Italy. The Italian national softball team approached her about joining in 2003.
The Des Moines Lincoln High School alumna, one of the most dominant softball pitchers in Iowa history, is one-quarter Italian on her father’s side.
Her grandpa Libero Birocci immigrated to the U.S. as a child to escape Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.
But Lisa, now Lisa Birocci Banse, wasn’t ready. She had just finished her sophomore season at the University of Iowa and had two more years as a Hawkeye.
The idea of Italy lingered.
“Italy stayed in my brain for the rest of college,” Lisa said. “I wanted to go to Italy.”
She did, playing professionally and for the Italian national team, winning championships and league titles just as she did for the Railsplitters and Hawkeyes.
Lisa earned dual citizenship and became as proud of Italy as America.
And come next summer, Lisa, at age 36, will take the field with her Italian national teammates and compete for softball gold in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“Every athlete wants to compete at the highest level of their sport, but I don’t think I ever dreamed I would be in the Olympics or even playing softball as long as I have,” she said.
Lisa decided she wanted to be a pitcher at age 10. Her father, Paul Birocci, sat on a bucket to save wear on his knees and put the catcher’s mitt in the center of the strike zone.
Lisa was long-legged with long arms like her tall, lanky father. She hurled a softball and it hissed.
But in those early days, the ball missed the mitt as often as it landed. Paul chased softballs that sailed over his head or careened left or right.
And he learned to twist his body in a hurry to protect himself when one bounced in the dirt.
Eventually control came. And heads in the Iowa softball world started to turn.
Lisa and her younger sister, Kristin, were both star softball players. Kristin went on to pitch and play outfield for Drake University.
Summer weekends often saw the Birocci family load one vehicle with Lisa and her mother, Linda, headed one direction and Kristin in the truck with Paul headed the opposite way. But the girls logged time in both vehicles with both parents.
“We chased those girls around the country,” Linda Birocci said. “We love every minute of it. Those are some of my best memories of the girls growing up.”
Lisa learned to keep softball in perspective early in her career. One of her teammates on the South Des Moines Junior Team, Diana Vivone, died in a car crash at age 11.
Diana’s father, Pete Vivone, kept coaching. After a frustrating loss, Lisa slumped on the bleachers in tears. Pete took Lisa for a walk.
“Look around you, Lisa,” Pete told her. “The grass is still green. The sky is still blue. The clouds are out and it’s a beautiful day. There are worse things that can happen in life than losing a softball game.”
Pete “doesn’t mention Diana,” wrote former Register reporter Ken Fuson, who observed the moment. “He doesn’t have to.”
That team, led by Lisa’s rocket arm, won the junior state championship title in Grinnell in 1995. The team gathered around Vivone’s grave and dedicated the title to her.
Lisa’s perspective is every bit as good as her fastball.
“All of my memories about playing softball aren’t about games, they’re about the things around softball,” she said.
Of course, she remembers winning championships. But it’s the hugs and high-fives, the silly made-up cheers and the fast food restaurants, the time they got one of the parents to dye his white hair green, and time with her dad.
When Lisa was still a youth player, she typically traveled with her father.
Paul Birocci coached hundreds of south-side girls in softball and basketball. He taught high school social studies for 35 years.
Lisa remembers trying to keep her father awake behind the wheel driving home at night after long days in the hot sun.
“I slept a lot,” Lisa said, “but my dad and I talked a lot, too. We would always be looking for a place to stop and eat, take a break or go to the bathroom. I feel so fortunate to have all that time with my dad to just talk.”
Paul Birocci died in 2014 of a rare neuromuscular disease.
“I think about my dad every day,” Lisa said. “I have so many reminders, some pleasant, some excruciatingly painful, that life is worth experiencing, sharing and loving.”
After an outstanding youth career, rumors floated that Lisa — who lived in Lincoln’s boundaries but was also Catholic — would play for Dowling Catholic in West Des Moines.
“Lisa is the only phone call I ever made as a coach at Lincoln,” said Roger Roland, who coached the Railsplitters for 25 years.
Roland called Lisa’s parents. He started to extol the virtues of Lincoln, but Paul Birocci stopped him.
“He said, ‘Well, Roger, thanks for your phone call, but we’ve already decided where we’re going to school. We’re going to be a Railsplitter,’” Roland recalled. “My heart about came out of my chest.”
Lisa led Lincoln to two state titles in 1999 and 2001. The 1999 title was the first state championship won by the Lincoln girls in any sport.
“It’s like I’m living my own dream,” pitcher Lisa said after Lincoln won its second softball title in 2001.
She struck out 1,837 batters — third in Iowa history at the time — and compiled a 143-29 win-loss record during her prep career.
Legendary Iowa softball coach Gayle Blevins recruited Lisa to the Hawkeyes.
There she continued blowing away hitters, striking out 946 in her career, winning 90 games and leading Iowa to the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament championships in 2003.
Lisa met Hawkeye shot-putter and discus thrower Andy Banse one day in the weight room. It was an end-of-the-summer workout for athletes. He said he was going to kick her rear end in the workout, Lisa remembers.
“I laughed, noticed his gorgeous blue eyes and walked away quickly,” Lisa said.
Both were dating other people at the time, but when they met up after breakups months later, they immediately went on a date.
“When we finally started dating for real, there was never any doubt in either of our minds that what we had was for real,” Lisa said. The two eventually married and have two children, Luca, 7, and Bianca, 5.
Lisa also had a similar certainty about where she was going after she graduated from Iowa in 2005: Italy.
Lisa earned her dual citizenship and played on the 2005 Italian national team that finished first at the European Championships in Prague.
She played for pro teams and the national team again in 2006 and 2009.
She also served as pitching coach for Penn State University for three seasons and now teaches lessons at Frozen Ropes, a baseball and softball academy in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
This Italian pride runs deep for Lisa. She passed along her dual citizenship to her children. Husband Andy, an assistant athletic director at Penn State, is a few pieces of paperwork from earning his dual citizenship.
Olympic rules stipulate a foreign-born player may play for a country’s national team if they can prove they are at least a quarter directly related to a native-born citizen.
For Lisa, that was her grandfather on her father’s side, Libero Birocci. Lisa didn’t really know him. He died of cancer when she was a toddler. But when she tells Italians his name, they know something about him.
Lisa’s family is from northern Italy. They resisted the fascist regime that arose in the 1930s under Benito Mussolini who allied with Adolf Hitler in Germany to form the European Axis.
One of the ways families resisted the oppression was the way they named their children.
“In Italian, Libero means ‘free,’” Lisa said. “My grandfather’s name was an act of resistance.”
Lisa has taken her parents and family all over Italy. On one visit, they rented a small rental car. They parked it on the street. Thieves stole the car overnight.
So, Lisa took them on a walking tour all over Rome. By the end of the day, they had walked for miles. Paul’s feet were so sore he wasn’t sure he could walk the next day.
“We laughed about that for years,” Lisa said.
Lisa returned to the field as a pitcher and hitter in 2016 to play for her longtime friend and coach, Enrico Obletter. She helped a club team win the national championship.
The Italian national team came calling again. The team wanted Lisa’s help to make the Olympics. A regime of yoga, pilates and weight and cardiovascular training keeps her competitive at 36, an age when most elite athletes are relegated to the sidelines.
“Yoga has taught me to listen to my body,” Lisa said. “Something might be off on one side and I’m compensating for it on the other. Sometimes I need to take a day off. I’ve learned how to rest.”
Yet come summer 2020, Lisa Birocci Banse, the south Des Moines girl with a whip for an arm, will push the sun into the sky one more time and try to win gold for the nation of her ancestors and in the process generate another few dozen scrapbooks worth of memories for her family.
Her mom, Linda, is already planning for Tokyo. Andy and the kids will be there, too, though the children needed a little convincing.
“The kids were like, ‘Great, Mom is going to make us watch more boring softball,’” Lisa said. “But I told them about Tokyo Disney and then they were totally into it.”
Lisa hits more than she pitches these days.
But who knows?
Maybe the coach will call her in for some relief.
She can toe the rubber and whip that arm, sending that softball hissing through the strike zone, popping the catcher’s mitt — just like she first did all those years ago with her father on the fields of south Des Moines.
Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.