Thanksgiving’s special joy

Erica and Jason Dambach have plenty of good reasons to be thankful in 2016

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec Erica and Jason Dambach feel blessed by the addition of their daughter, Addison.

A wedding. A baby. A huge sports championship. Returning home from afar. Talk about a tremendous year.

On a day when we all stop to give thanks, Jason and Erica Dambach have as much to be thankful for as just about any couple you’ll find.

“We do pinch ourselves all the time,” Jason said. “We’ll just be sitting on the couch watching television, and it will just hit one of us, and we’ll talk about it. It’s really special.”

Jason is well known by longtime Altoona Curve fans as he spent 10 years as a broadcaster with the franchise from 1999-2008. He’s now president of the State College Spikes.

Erica, maiden name Walsh, is one of the most successful women’s soccer coaches in the country. She’s been the head coach at Penn State since 2007, and one of her many accomplishments was serving as an assistant on the United States’ gold medal-winning team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Erica led Penn State to the school’s first women’s soccer national championship in December. That alone would make for one of the most memorable years of a person’s life, but it was merely the beginning of the couple’s dream year.

In the ensuing months, Jason moved back to State College from Texas, where he had been working for a year, the couple got married and welcomed a baby girl, Addison Jeanne Dambach.

It was one dream come true after another.

“I find myself wanting to replay the moments that perhaps I wasn’t able to really capture at the time,” Erica said, “because it was so overwhelming and there was so much going on.”

Unusual courtship

Jason, a Punxsutawney native and Clarion University graduate, first joined the Curve as an intern in 1999 and went on to add public relations to his broadcasting duties.

After the 2008 season, he departed to become GM of the Spikes, who play at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park on Penn State’s campus.

Erica had come to Penn State a year earlier, following a one-year stint as head coach at Harvard.

The two knew each other a bit from working and living in the same town, then in early January 2015, things progressed.

“She just asked me if I wanted to go grab a drink or a bite to eat, and we went out and had a great time,” Jason said.

Ahhh, but there was a catch.

“I proceeded to tell her in the middle of that conversation that I was moving to Texas,” Jason said.

The Spikes are owned by former Curve owner Chuck Greenberg, who also owns the Double-A franchise in Frisco, Texas. Dambach had received a promotion to become the Frisco RoughRiders’ executive vice president and GM, so he was leaving behind his life in Pennsylvania.

Or so he thought.

That first date with Erica a few days earlier wound up changing the course of their lives forever.

“I walked out of there and thought to myself, ‘Jeez, what have I done?'” Jason said.

Even after Jason moved 1,400 miles away to Texas, he and Erica continued to text and call each other, and slowly but surely they built a relationship.

Erica traveled to Texas that February, then they didn’t see one another for six weeks. Jason came back to State College every now and then to handle his duties with the Spikes, and Erica made a couple of trips to see him.

“It wasn’t easy,” Jason said. “I’m not sure how we really got through that, but with modern technology and a lot of faith and a lot of love, we did a good job of getting through it.”

National champs

Erica’s 2015 started off great personally, dating Jason, and ended with a professional achievement of a lifetime.

She has always enjoyed success with the Penn State women’s soccer program, winning eight Big Ten regular-season titles, and on Dec. 6, 2015, the Nittany Lions defeated Duke, 1-0, to claim the  program’s first national championship.

“I was absolutely blown away by the support of Penn Staters from this area and around the country,” Erica said.

Winning the championship helped  reaffirm why Erica loves coaching so much.

“It’s about raising that trophy, that moment where you are at the pinnacle, and you’re looking around and seeing the thrill of the moment on the faces of the players,” she said.

Assistant coach Ann Cook has been on Erica’s staff for 10 years, and they played together in college at William & Mary. She knows better than anyone just how much all of the wonderful moments Erica has enjoyed over the past year have meant to her.

“I can honestly say with no hesitation that there is no one in the world more deserving,” Cook said. “Erica is the kindest, most selfless and hardest-working human I’ve ever met, not to mention the funniest and most genuine. A person like that should get only the best things.”

Moving back home

Getting ready to start a family, Jason moved back to State College in May.

He continues to hold all of his front office titles with the Frisco franchise, as well as the Spikes, and he has the type of job that allows him to live in Pennsylvania while still overseeing the team in Texas.

He also has a boss in Greenberg who has been very understanding when it comes to balancing personal and professional priorities.

“Watching Jason’s professional evolution and growth to attain such richly deserved stature in our industry fills all of us who knew and worked with him way back when with incredible pride,” Greenberg said.

“From our first days together in Altoona, Jason exemplified honesty, professionalism, an unquenchable desire to be his best, no matter what role he served in. But above all else, Jason is a world-class human being who leaves everyone with whom he interacts with a big smile. All of us are better for having known and worked with him.”

Many long-distance relationships just don’t work, but Jason and Erica made it work for the time they had to be apart. Then came the time for them to reunite, which happened when Jason returned home to central Pa.

“It means the world to me that he’s back here in Centre County,” Erica said. “I can’t say enough how thankful I am that at this point in our life we ended up back here in State College.”

Starting a family

Addison was born July 8, weighing in at 8 pounds. As any new parent can attest, having a child changes the entire way you look at the world.

For Jason and Erica, becoming parents a bit later in life means they could bring a world of perspective to parenthood.

“When it happens when you’re 40 and you’ve had a chance to get into your profession, be successful in your profession, travel the world, do so many things you wanted to do in your life, you can really sit down and focus on being the best mom you can be, no distractions,” Erica said.

“I don’t have that itch to be getting out there or feel like I’m missing something,” she added.

Like Erica, Jason is extremely driven when it comes to his career, so much so that he wondered if his opportunity to become a dad had passed him by.

“As everybody knows that has children, it is a life-changing experience,” Jason said. “But I’d say for she and I, once you get into your late 30s and you’re not married, you kind of reconcile that you’re not going to have children in your life.”

Jason works from home each day, but he stopped short of calling himself “Mr. Mom.”

Their nanny takes care of Addison while mom and dad work.

“I have Mr. Mom skills,” Jason said, “but that’s not what I’m required to do on a daily basis.”

Wedded bliss

The newlyweds speak so lovingly of one another and how thankful they are to have found each other. But there is one strange thing about their union.

Erica coaches at Penn State.

Jason is a Pitt guy, through and through.

“Not only is he a Pitt guy, but he’s a Pittsburgh guy, and I’m a Philly person,” Erica said. “It’s not just Pitt-Penn State. It’s Steelers and Eagles, Penguins and Flyers.”

A little thing such as sports rivalries can’t interfere with true love. But just in case, Erica did say there are two floors in the house, so it’s easy to picture Jason getting fired up watching the Panthers beat Clemson on one TV, while Erica watches the Nittany Lions on another.

Erica has been a coach for a long time, and she believes that she’s now a better one because of her ability to draw on the worldly aspects of being a wife and mother.

“Perspective,” she said. “I think up to this point I have probably lost sleep over every last detail that I shouldn’t be fretting over. … I think my team has had the opportunity to see me in the more human capacity as a mom.”

Loving memories

Anyone who’s known Jason for a long time, such as those who have been around the Curve franchise since the beginning, understand how truly wonderful it is that he found Erica.

Jason was engaged before to a lovely young woman, Kerri McEachern, who also worked for the Curve. She was diagnosed with cancer in February of 2009, just a month after she and Jason got engaged.

Kerri died three months later at age 24.

“She was my everything,” Jason said then.

The pain has never gone away.

“That was a very traumatic thing to go through losing Kerri in 2009,” Jason said. “When you go through something like that, it’s really hard to come to terms with the fact that your heart can open to somebody else.”

It took six years before Erica came along, and Jason said she and her family “have been very accepting of what my past holds.”

“I could not be more thrilled for Jason to see his life become so complete and joyous,” Greenberg said. “To have seen someone we all love and admire experience such pain and heartbreak, and now find such fulfillment years later, is truly wonderful.”

Erica calls Jason “a great husband and father,” and he in turn dotes on her and cherishes all the things they’ve already been able to enjoy in their lives together.

“It’s a lot to be thankful for,” Jason said.