Hardball

How softball coach Holly Nuber won the state championship -- and lost her job

Nuber also irritated many of the team members' parents. Mostly, they voiced the usual parent complaints: that their daughters weren't getting enough playing time, weren't being coached precisely as the parents believed they should be.

Nuber's relationship with Nelson continued its downward spiral. In February 1995, she was late turning in a University Interscholastic League form that demonstrated her players' eligibility. Nelson's letter of reprimand starchily informed her that "any further UIL violation could jeopardize your position as a head coach in Pearland." Nuber says she called the head of the UIL, who told her that, so long as the players were eligible, being a little late with the form wasn't a big deal.

Later that season, an academically floundering softball player lost her eligibility to compete. Nuber didn't know of the girl's troubles and unknowingly violated rules by allowing her to suit up and ride the team bus to the game. By happenstance, the girl didn't play -- but if she had, the Lady Oilers would have been forced to forfeit the game, a matter of no small importance to the team.

Nuber, for her part, maintains that Nelson was fully aware of the player's ineligibility a day before the game, but failed to relay that information to her. But in his memo to the coach, Nelson took no responsibility for the lapse and minced no words about its consequences: "If you should have any more ... critical mistakes in judgment on your part, you will be subject to immediate dismissal as head softball coach at Pearland High School."

Nuber received the reprimand as the Lady Oilers were advancing in the playoffs. Already on edge, the coach wondered what might constitute a "critical mistake in judgment."

"Would it be starting a certain player over another?" she asked Nelson in her written reply. "Calling for a bunt and an athlete not executing it properly? Working a certain defensive strategy?"

Nonetheless, the Lady Oilers continued to win. The team T-shirt was emblazoned with boxes to check as Pearland racked up new prizes. The girls checked off the district championship, the bi-district championship, the area and regional championships. And when only one box remained -- the state championship -- softball aficionados predicted that the Lady Oilers stood a good chance, that the finals would most likely be fought between Pearland and Dobie.

To fire up the team, Nuber and her assistant coach, Amber Maier, each agreed to add one pierced earring to their right ears for every playoff victory. The garnets and diamonds -- chosen to match the team colors -- marched up their ears, six apiece by the time the Lady Oilers headed to Austin for the tournament.

But Nuber and Maier had no need for new piercings. In a heartbreaking semifinal game, Pearland lost to Midland Lee, 2-1. "The team was young and nervous," Nuber says simply. "It got the better of us."

The loss wasn't the last of her disappointments that spring. In Nuber's end-of-the-year coaching evaluation, Nelson rated her "Needs Improvement" or "Unsatisfactory" in more than 20 categories. Her response was impolitic, but heartfelt. She annotated the rating form with angry, scribbled commentary: "Gee what a fucking crock of SHIT AGAIN"; regarding the players' unsatisfied parents, "I CAN'T BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR."

The Lady Oilers had heard rumors about their coach's sexuality, but none of the players seems to have been perturbed. "It wasn't an issue," says Danya Serrano. "She was a good coach and kept the team together."

At the beginning of the '96 season, a fresh rumor flew through Pearland High: if Coach Nuber didn't bring home the state championship this year, she'd lose her job. Players say it was common knowledge that their coach locked horns with the athletic director.

The girls wanted the championship mostly for its own sweet sake, desiring it all the more because they'd come so close the year before. "We had it in our hearts to win," says second baseman Ashley Oswald. "This would be our year." The new team shirt offered only one box to check: "State Champions."

Nuber desperately wanted to check off that box, and she believed that her team could do it. The '96 Lady Oilers overflowed with talent. Pearland boasted the best pitching staff in the area: right-hander Melissa Coronado was only a sophomore but already a strikeout force to be reckoned with; she rotated the spot with Missy Ladd, a junior and almost equally unhittable. The team was also noted for its batting prowess and hunger to win; some girls even met with a group of fathers to practice on Sundays.

As Nuber saw it, her main challenge was to mold the outstanding individuals into an outstanding team. She continued to coach as she'd always coached: with high expectations and positive feedback. She gave pep talks; she didn't scream. When her players critiqued their teammates, she required them to offset every negative comment with three positive ones. Even Nuber's worst critics concede that she excels at building her players' self-esteem.

Which is not to say that the team was all sweetness and light; winning demands ferocity. Graceful shortstop Lea Mishlan, a senior, served as the unofficial team captain. Before games, she'd lead the Lady Oilers in the same fierce cheer every week, varied only by the school colors of their opponents. For Dobie High, the chant went like this:

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