“Being nice matters and I think sometimes our society forgets that.” – Mallory Holtman-Fletcher
Central Washington University is a medium-sized state university of some 10,000 students. It is a solid school, providing a breadth of education to students for about 150 different majors. It provides fantastic value; it was recently rated by The Economist magazine as providing the most positive economic impact on its students of all colleges and universities in the state of Washington. It offers 17 NCAA sports, usually competing at the Division-II level. You don’t hear a lot of noise from or about CWU; they just go about their job, doing it well and moving along just fine, thank you.
Students and alumni of other Washington state schools often disparagingly refer to CWU as “Car Wash State.” But CWU, staff, students and grads don’t mind much. And they don’t retaliate. It is a respectable school.
Ellensburg, Washington – located just over 100 miles east of Seattle, across the Cascade Range, where the mountains blend into the drier Kittitas Valley, and then to the even drier and flatter semi-desert of eastern Washington – is the host city to CWU. Ellensburg is a small, functional and well-located town of under 20,000 hearty souls. Ellensburg is a lot like CWU to me: there is no chest-thumping, no braggadocio, no flash. Just simple efficiency. Folks from Seattle and other towns west of the Cascades often like to knock it – sometimes as they breeze past on Interstate-90 – as a nothing, sleepy town. As the equivalent of fly-over country for road trips.
Due to a fleeting, shiny fleck of personal history, both CWU and Ellensburg will forever occupy a tiny, but special, place in my heart. A soft spot. Let’s call that soft spot a piece of cake.
Due to one of the most unlikely series of events (and sportsmanship) in all of NCAA history – if not all of sports history – that Ellensburg/CWU piece of cake now has a nice crown of icing. Very tasty.
There are a lot of sports that I don’t pay much attention to, except maybe into and through the playoffs when the best teams are playing, and they have something important to play for. NCAA Women’s Softball is one of those sports. I’ll catch a glimpse when in a sports bar, or channel flipping. Then I’m like a moth around a late-night light: I just can’t help myself. My attention is drawn to the pure athleticism and grace of the players under pressure; the pace of the game; the strategies and the drama. Perhaps their reflexes are the most impressive. Pitchers can throw the ball – underhand mind you – at speeds that approach major league pitch speeds. But the pitching rubber is some 14 feet closer than the majors! What a softball pitcher can make that ball do as it speeds along that distance of 46 feet at 80+ mph is astonishing! The pitches rise; they dip; they slip, and they slide. How do batters even touch the ball?
One thing that always amazes me is the size and physique of so many of the young women. I’ve always thought that most of the better players could swap uniforms with their school’s football players and you could use them as actors in making a realistic movie about linebackers.
I knew of the following story, and at least one other somewhat similar. Somehow, I forgot almost completely about it. But sportsmanship in competitive dramatic moments came up in a conversation with my wife recently, and my non-linear brain pulled up this story and quite a few details. At first, I contorted my brain to try and recall much more. Well the internet is an astounding resource. After finding many more details there, including some school records, I was overcome with the urge to write it down.
When the Western Oregon University women’s softball team traveled to Ellensburg to play a double-header against Central Washington University on April 26, 2008, the teams were neck-and-neck for the season conference title, which would end in about a week. It was a special day at CWU: Senior Day. Their seniors were being honored as they would be playing the final home games of their career.
Playing first base for CWU that day was senior Mallory Holtman. During those last few weeks of the season she was playing through terrific pain. She really needed two knee surgeries. Those would have to wait; she did not want to let herself or her team down. She wanted one last chance for a conference championship. She was certainly one of the stars of the team – in fact the entire Great Northwestern Athletic Conference. At the time she was the conference’s all-time home run and RBI leader; she is still the all-time conference leader in those statistics. At season’s end she was chosen the GNAC Player of the Year, leading it in home runs and batting nearly .400.
Across the infield was friend Liz Wallace, another senior and team leader – also hoping to help lead CWU to the league championship and playoffs. Liz stood second to Mallory at almost every offensive statistic, and she held down the very important defensive position of shortstop. She had played in almost every single CWU game over her four years there. The day and the games meant a lot to these young women.
In 2008, Western Oregon was having one of their best seasons in years. In fact, their best season ever. They had momentum and they could feel it. And on that last Saturday in April they had just rolled into town from Idaho, having taken both ends of a double-header from Northwest Nazarene, in Nampa.
Petite and plucky Sara Tucholsky was a senior on that 2008 Western Oregon squad. She had been through the WOU bad times with good cheer. [The previous three years the team’s won-loss records were 14-33, 17-32, and a promising 26-25]. And, although she had only briefly been a full-time player – during part of her sophomore year – she was certainly enjoying being part of this team. It was a team of extraordinarily deep talent and chemistry. When she got a chance to play, she gave it her all – athletically, energetically and enthusiastically.
At only 5-foot 2-inches tall Sara stood nearly a head shorter than most other players. Add to that her rather slight frame and she would never be confused for a linebacker, no matter what she was wearing. This season, as during most of the previous three, Sara played only sparingly, sometimes against a non-conference foe, or – like today – in a double-header during a long stretch of games so that some players could rest.
Western Oregon took game one easily by a score of 8-1, behind star pitcher, team MVP and conference all-star Katie Fleer. (Fleer won 25 games that year).
For game two, Sara was inserted into the 8th batting position and right field.
Her career batting statistics until this day raised no eyebrows. They were fodder for little conversation. Her college batting average was a humble .149, and she had but one lonely extra base hit in those four years – a double that fell in way back in her freshman year. Not only did she not have a single college home run, she had never hit a home run – ever. Not in high school, not in youth sports.
When Sara’s first turn to bat came up in that second game of a double-header, April 26, 2008, in the top of the second inning, her batting average for that 2008 season was an unimposing .088 – a mere three singles in 34 at bats. Yet she battled on.
She had diligently taken her turn at regular batting practice; taken advice from coaches; worked on drills. She exhibited a commitment to improvement when many others would have given up.
With one out and two runners on base Sara now made her way to home plate. A few jeers and giggles came from the crowd when her lack of height and brawn became evident during her stroll. She gave herself a little pep talk: ignore them, be brave, be focused, don’t give in, do your best, Sara – whatever that may bring.
She dug in to the right-handed batter’s box. The first pitch was a rising fast ball, about letter high. A borderline pitch. Sara let it go. Strike one!
Well, whatever happened next, she told herself, she wasn’t going to let that happen again.
She doesn’t remember where the next pitch was. Sara simply remembers swinging.
And that’s when the first unlikely event happened. Sara made solid contact. Very solid contact. Contact like she had never made before. Right on the sweet spot.
The batted ball soared out to centerfield and kept going … and going. The two base runners paused so they could tag up when the ball was caught– Sara certainly couldn’t hit the ball over the fence. Could she?
She did. That ball cleared the fence.
While the other runners jogged around the bases to home, Sara – a very jubilant lass – jumped and skipped as she ran to – and past – first base. In her excitement she initially missed the base. Every player and fan knows that a ball hit over the fence is not a home run until the batter touches all the bases, in order. Even though she had never hit a ball over an outfield fence before, Sara of course quickly realized she had missed the base. She stopped. Then she turned around – maybe a bit too quickly in the excitement. She had to return to, and touch, first base.
And that’s when the second unlikely event happened. Sara let out a short yelp – and crumpled to the dirt. Something was terribly wrong with her right knee. As it turned out, she had torn her ACL. She crawled back to first base, practically in tears.
And now the dilemma. Sara could not be expected to crawl around the bases like that, let alone walk or trot. The rules of baseball and softball do not permit physical assistance by a player’s teammates or coaches. If so, she would be declared out, and her home run would not be counted. If she were replaced by a pinch runner, it would be a dead ball substitution: The replacement runner would begin the next play at first base, Sara would only be credited with a single, and her run would not count.
After a few minutes of discussion – frustrating discussion between WOU coaches and umpires – there occurred the third surprise event: the unselfish act. Perhaps not quite as unlikely as the long hit and the sudden crippling injury, but one of the most wonderful decisions and events in sports EVER.
Just as Western Oregon’s coach was about to put a replacement runner at first base for Sara, Central Washington’s star first baseman, Mallory Holtman, asked if she and her teammates could help Sara around the bases. They conferred with the umpires, who concurred that this would be within the rules. Holtman, joined by teammate Liz Wallace, carried lame Sara the rest of the way around the diamond, pausing a moment at each base and gently lowering Sara so that her left foot could tap second, then third base … and then home plate. Whereupon Sara was handed over to her teammates.
It was now official! Sara had hit a three-run home run! Those were her only three RBIs (Runs Batted In) for the entire season. It was, of course, her last at bat in college. Her improbable hit – and CWU’s extraordinary act of sportsmanship – were the unlikely difference in what turned out to be a 4-2 victory for Western Oregon.
The idea of carrying Sara around originally occurred to Holtman. And she had the gumption to approach the umpires and WOU coaches on her own. But she has always brushed off the praise. She’s always insisted that it’s something anyone could have thought of; and almost everyone would have done.
The event was highly documented and discussed at the time. The three young women won an ESPY for “Best Sports Moment” of the year that summer. They all would go on to a few years of notoriety, giving motivational speeches, usually Sara and Mallory, who formed a lasting friendship as a result. The video of their performance is still burned into their memory and that of many sports fans.
Western Oregon indeed went on to win the conference championship. It was the school’s first conference championship – in any sport. They were eliminated from the Division II sectionals a few weeks later by another conference rival, Humboldt State (from California).
All three young women soon graduated. That was ten years ago. They are all now married and, near as I can tell, still live in the Northwest or West.
Mallory Holtman went to graduate school at CWU, became the school’s assistant softball coach, and just over two years later, became the head coach, beating out nearly 50 other applicants for the position, aged only 25. She recently retired from the demands of that position to spend more time with her family.
Liz Wallace is very involved in youth softball, helping to develop the coming generations of good athletes, and good sports. She also works as a human resources administrator. She’s living the life of a military spouse, so locating her at any time can be difficult.
Sara works as Area Manager of recruiters and representatives for various therapy services: physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech pathology, etc. She still gives motivational talks. She volunteers for various agencies, including Ronald McDonald House.
Sara and Mallory remain friends, although they live about four hours apart.
The two CWU young women  — Mallory and Liz — gave us all something to cherish and remember – whether or not we are sports enthusiasts. It’s this lesson: We must consider our fellow humans as part of the same team – before we can consider them competitors.
The second life lesson is thanks to Sara: no matter how down you are, no matter how bleak the outlook, you are never defeated if you don’t give up.
To this day Central Washington, Ellensburg and those three very special women don’t brag about it. That’s class. Actions speak for themselves.
Joe Girard © 2018
Acknowledgement to my good friend Marcy, who helped with proof reading and editorial suggestions. She is a delight. It turns out she rather enjoyed the story for personal reasons as well: her cousin attends CWU. I apologize, Marcy, if any typos, errors, or uneven reading have crept through into the final draft. Your effort, as always and in all regards, is greatly appreciated.
1) The umpires were in fact wrong. NCAA rules did permit a substitute runner in such a rare event to continue running the bases in a dead ball situation such as this. It’s an understandable error, and the sports world is better off for it. The rules have been amended to make this clearer.
2) ESPY = Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly
3) Watch a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jocw-oD2pgo
4) However, as a club sport, the WOU men’s lacrosse team won the non-NCAA sanctioned PNCLL conference that year, 2008.
5) I almost used “Young Ladies” here and throughout. It was sort of a title, as in “Lord and Lady”, or “M’Lady” – as they had certainly earned a title. Upon reflection I was led to conclude the term could be considered disparaging, so used “Young Women” instead.
6) Box score for the game: http://www.wouwolves.com/custompages/Softball/SCStats/2008/wou41.htm
7) Yes I know that I named an earlier essay Last At Bat, but I couldn’t help myself. So this essay got an appropriate subtitle: Good Sport
NCAA: Where are they now?
Western Oregon Softball historical stats: http://www.wouwolves.com/sports/2018/1/15/SB_0113093741.aspx?path=softball