Hardball

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

Orange bird with white wings
Sitting on my window sill.
Let 'im in with a piece of bread
Then I smash his little head.

In pursuit of the championship, Nuber tried to leave nothing to chance. She spent hours scouting the Oilers' competition. Superstitiously, she and the team refused to utter the words "state championship."

She campaigned for the district to adopt the yellow softballs used in the playoffs, so that her team could grow used to the slightly different feel. Nelson commanded her to drop the subject and not call other coaches in the district. Memos on the subject were added to her file.

Afraid that Nelson would once again disturb her concentration during the playoffs, Nuber went over his head and appealed to Bonnie Cain, the executive director of the Pearland Independent School District. Cain ordered Nelson to save his criticism until after the playoffs.

Finally, in mid-May, the Lady Oilers headed once again to the Final Four. In their semifinal game against Keller, neither team managed to score in the regular seven innings; Melissa Coronado was pitching a no-hitter. Finally, in the bottom of the ninth, with Pearland at bat, Coronado hit a double, then stole third. Freshman Tanelle Zapate drove her home with a single, and with a 1-0 win, the Lady Oilers advanced to the big game.

They faced San Marcos, their last rival. At the top of the last inning, Pearland was winning, 1-0. But with only one out, San Marcos runners occupied first and third base, and seemed likely to tie the score. Nuber called a time-out.

Another coach might have exhorted her team to stop a run at all costs. Instead, Nuber told her players that even should San Marcos make the run, not to give up, that the Lady Oilers could still come back in their turn at bat. The important thing was to stick together.

A San Marcos player hit a sacrifice fly, and the player on third made it home. But the Pearland team continued unfazed, their confidence unshaken by the setback. And -- just as Nuber had predicted -- they came back in the bottom of the inning. With three runners on base, Melissa Coronado hit a single, and Miranda Knight ran home. The Lady Oilers won, 2-1.

When a Chronicle reporter approached the players, Lea Mishlan had trouble formulating her thoughts. "Wow?" she said through tears. "Oh my God? I'm sorry, but it's just hard to describe how I feel. I just know there isn't a closer team, and I think that's what pulled us through."

Nuber's exhilaration didn't last long. On May 29, at 10 a.m., she met Van Nelson to hear the criticism he'd been saving during the playoffs. The litany was long.mmmmm On May 18 -- the day the Lady Oilers won the championship -- Lea Mishlan's parents, Debra and Andy Mishlan, had written Nelson a three-page letter of complaint. "We feel that Ms. Nuber is not doing all of her job this year," they stated. "We also feel that she has not been doing all of her job throughout the four years our daughter has played for the Pearland High School varsity softball team."

The Mishlans held that Nuber didn't heap enough glory on individual players. They complained that in 1995, she named the entire team "Most Valuable Player," and that in 1996, she failed to nominate her players for various honors and neglected to inform the media of players' accomplishments.

"Her view that individual awards are not what our team is about seems truly idealistic and, in our view, a naive way of viewing the team," they wrote. "Most of the girls on the team have been playing softball for many, many years with good, solid coaching from volunteers within and outside of the Pearland community, and they are not naive. They know they need to stand out in a crowd if they hope to get a scholarship."

The Mishlans' letter wasn't Nelson's only ammunition. Nuber stood accused of dancing on the bus with her players and of urging bus drivers to go fast over speed bumps. On the trip home from the championship game, her players had stuck their heads out the bus' trap door -- making the parents driving behind them fear they'd be decapitated by low-hanging limbs or bridges.

The biggest complaint of all seemed to be that, on the bus trip to the championship game, Nuber had allowed the girls to watch Boomerang, an R-rated Eddie Murphy movie. A memo from principal Greg Smith painstakingly inventories the film's curse words: the word "dick" was used five times, "fuck" six times, "pussy" 11 times, and so on.

Nuber could see her annual evaluation sitting on Nelson's desk. On its last page, he recommended that she not return as head softball coach.

Maybe Pearland High didn't discriminate against Nuber. Maybe no coach could have lived up to its standards.mmmmmmmmm The league's other softball coaches side firmly with Nuber. Rhonda Foster coaches at Dobie High School, which won the '95 state championship. According to Foster, coaches commonly suffer the slings and arrows of zealous parents. "What they don't understand is that it's actually harder to coach talented players. They got attitudes and egos," she says. "The parents don't realize how tough it is to hold them together as a team."

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