National Collegiate Athletic Association
By Matt Velazquez
April 26th, 2013
Five years ago, Mallory Holtman, Liz Wallace and Sara Tucholsky were just college seniors trying to make the most of the final few softball games of their careers. When they woke up on the morning of April 26, 2008, they had no idea know what lay ahead of them.
For Central Washington’s Holtman and Wallace, the day had been earmarked early in the season as a special one − it was their Senior Day. Holtman, a power-hitting first baseman, was putting the finishing touches on the finest career that anyone had produced in a Central Washington uniform. She was named first-team All-Greater Northwest Athletic Conference four times and finished with school records in nearly every offensive category, including hits (206), home runs (35), doubles (47), runs scored (127) and RBIs (128).
Wallace, the Wildcats’ dependable shortstop, was completing an impressive career of her own. That day’s doubleheader marked not only her final home games, but also the 177th and 178th of the school-record 182 that she played during her Central Washington career. Wallace wasn’t just good at showing up: She finished behind Holtman for second in school history with 158 hits.
In the other dugout, Western Oregon’s Tucholsky was merely hoping for a hit − anything would do. The 5-foot-2 outfielder was mired in a 3-for-34 slump and wanted to get on base by any means necessary. If she was going to shake her slump, this would be a good day to do it. Western Oregon and Central Washington were jockeying for the top spot in the GNAC standings.
In the top of the second inning during the second game, all three of their lives changed with one swing of the bat, a torn knee ligament and an extraordinary act of sportsmanship. They still hear the echoes of what seemed like a simple act even as the next five years took them down very different paths.
Many people across the country still vividly recall what happened on that dusty softball diamond in Ellensburg, Wash. − an 18,000-person town nestled in the middle of the state at the eastern feet of the Cascade Mountains. Whether they were among the few watching from the stands or the many watching baseball’s All-Star Game, the spirit of that moment swept across the country and left an inspiring impression.
Tucholsky broke out of her slump in a big way in that second inning with her first career home run, a three-run shot over the center-field fence. It wasn’t just her first collegiate homer. In fact, it was the first time she had ever sent a softball out of any park at any level. Overjoyed, she missed first base. But when she cut back to the bag, her right knee buckled as her anterior cruciate ligament tore. She fought the pain to get back to first base, but she could go no further.
An injured Sara Tucholsky of Western Oregon received a good-sportsman assist from Central Washington’s Liz Wallace (left) and Mallory Holtman. Blakek Wolf photo
Softball’s rules state that a runner must round the bases without any help from her teammates to be given credit for a home run. If Tucholsky received help from her teammates, coach, or trainer, she would be called out. If she was subbed out for a pinch runner, that runner would have to stay at first base and Tucholsky would be credited with the longest, most devastating single of her life.
Holtman, who heard all of this from her position at first base, recognized that Tucholsky had earned the home run and should get credit for it. She approached the umpire and asked if Tucholsky would get credit for the home run if she and a teammate helped her around the bases. After receiving confirmation that it was permissible, Holtman and Wallace picked up Tucholsky and carried her around the bases, crouching at each bag to allow her to gingerly touch the base with her left foot.
The story turned viral, and almost immediately the three players and their teams − small, Division II schools − were thrust into the national spotlight. Throughout that summer, the trio of former softball rivals was shuttled across the country together for a wide range of appearances. They did interviews for major media outlets. They attended the College World Series and the Little League World Series. They sat in the dugout at the old Yankee Stadium during the Home Run Derby and attended the All-Star Game as guests of Commissioner Bud Selig. They even received the ESPY Award for Best Moment.
The attention died down after the whirlwind summer. The story endures five years later, but its players have moved on − though one hasn’t gone too far.
‘BEING NICE MATTERS’
Many things have changed in five years, though. She is now in the third season as the head coach at Central Washington, is married – she is now Mallory Holtman-Fletcher – and has a 16-month-old son named Braxton. But each day is spent mere steps away from her signature moment as a player.
After her summer of national travel in 2008, Holtman-Fletcher landed back in Ellensburg where she served as a graduate assistant softball coach while working on her master of science in athletic administration. Over the next two seasons, Holtman-Fletcher learned everything she could from Wildcats coach Gary Frederick, who was the program’s coach from 1995 until 2010.
As a player, Holtman-Fletcher told Frederick that she planned on taking his job when he retired, and she meant it. When he stepped down after the 2010 season, Holtman-Fletcher indeed applied for the job, though she was definitely not a sure hire. Nearly 50 coaches applied for the position, but Holtman-Fletcher emerged on top.
“I guess it wouldn’t seem like a lot of change − I haven’t left the department or my athletic league − but just going from a player to a head coach is one of the things I’m most proud of in my career,” she said.
During her coaching apprenticeship, Holtman-Fletcher continued to accept motivational speaking invitations across the country. Sometimes she would attend the events with Tucholsky and sometimes she would go on her own. The talks − mostly concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, but sometimes as far away as Florida − were for a variety of crowds, including business people, school children and sports groups. But they were all focused on the importance of being nice.
“Being nice matters and I think sometimes our society forgets that,” Holtman-Fletcher said. “I love motivational speaking; there’s just something about it. I think every coach does it daily in a way, but being able to get your message out to as many people as you can is great.”
Those speaking engagements gave Holtman-Fletcher and Tucholsky a chance not just to tell their story and spread their message of kindness, but also to periodically reconnect. The pair created a strong friendship during the summer of 2008, but they were separated by a drive of more than four hours and the hassles of everyday life when the summer came to an end.
Following her senior season at Western Oregon, Tucholsky remained in Oregon where she worked for an orthopedic surgeon before changing careers last year in a new job providing administrative support for the Beaverton (Ore.) Police Department. She still stays active in athletics through classes at her local gym and, of course, playing slow-pitch softball.
It’s been a few years since she has toured the motivational speaking circuit with Holtman-Fletcher, but she still gets recognized more often than she ever expected. Ever as far away as Mexico, where she took a recent vacation, people brought up Tucholsky’s story.
“I am very surprised how often it still comes up,” Tucholsky said with a laugh. “I actually went back to Monmouth (where Western Oregon University is located) to visit a friend, and we went to a baseball game and the baseball games cost $6 to get into now − it’s very different than when we were back in school. All my friends started joking around with me saying, ‘Just tell them who you are and you’ll get in free!’ ”
In her spare time, Tucholsky has been working on a scrapbook to commemorate all of her experiences, particularly those during the spring and summer of 2008. She’s been meaning to finish it, but the pages are still waiting to be filled. The memories, however, have not diminished.
One that stands out is from the bi-coastal trip that she took with Holtman-Fletcher and Wallace to attend the MLB All-Star Game and the ESPY Awards on back-to-back days. The game itself went into extra innings and didn’t end until the wee hours of the morning. With a 5 a.m. flight to Los Angeles, the group ordered room service and stayed up all night at the hotel and built their friendship.
“Looking back at the pictures and all the places we went and everything we experienced together − I think that’s the other part of it,” Tucholsky said. “There was what we experienced on the field, and looking back at what we got to experience together after that made the story even better because now you’ve formed a friendship after a good deed on the field.”
Tucholsky maintained a relationship with Holtman-Fletcher after her speaking opportunities subsided. The two talk and text as much as their busy lives allow. Tucholsky attended Holtman-Fletcher’s wedding last summer, and the two usually try to link up if Holtman-Fletcher’s team is playing at Western Oregon.
IT’S THE MESSAGE THAT COUNTS
Unlike Holtman-Fletcher and Tucholsky, Wallace didn’t remain in the Pacific Northwest upon graduation. She and her husband, who is in the Navy and was recently selected for commissioning, moved in 2010 to the Naval base in Point Mugu, Calif., where he is stationed.
Wallace currently works as a human resources administrator at a small IT company while finishing her master’s degree in human resources management at the University of La Verne. Though she is geographically removed from the memorable trot around the bases, people still recognize her for it.
“It’s come up in school; it’s come up at work where people have talked about it,” Wallace said. “It’s followed me in that sense, but it’s also followed me in the lessons that I took from that. I learned that there’s no act of kindness that’s too small. I want to just continue to make a difference and help people because you never know how something you do can change someone’s life.”
One of the ways that Wallace continues to make a difference is through coaching 10-and-under softball. She knew that she couldn’t stay away from the game as soon as she stopped playing. So she took up coaching. Wallace enjoys the opportunity to work with the next generation of softball players and occasionally tells the story of the kind deed that brought Central Washington and Western Oregon softball into the national spotlight.
There’s one tidbit that Wallace willfully leaves out of that story − her own name.
“I always get a little bit embarrassed when people recognize me. I prefer the story just to be anonymous and told without my name in it,” she said. “It’s not important about the people; it’s just really the message. … If that story goes on for years and years without my name in it I’m perfectly happy with that.”
THE POWER OF POSITIVE COACHING
When Holtman-Fletcher took over as Central Washington’s head coach at the age of 25, she was one of the youngest collegiate head coaches in the country at any level. One of her first actions was keeping Frederick as an assistant coach. At 73 years old, he still hits batting practice every day.
The decision keep Frederick around was a simple, yet important one for Holtman-Fletcher, who has come to realize that as much as she loves it, coaching is a difficult job. It’s even more time-consuming at a small school like Central Washington.
“I’m a coach by myself. I don’t have a full-time assistant. I don’t even have a part-time assistant,” Holtman-Fletcher said. “My assistants all have other jobs or are retired and come to practice and games. … I’m kind of by myself in the office and I have a lot of help at practice and games, luckily. I am definitely busy.”
Her work paid off immediately. In her first season, Holtman-Fletcher led the Wildcats to a 34-16 record and a first-place finish in the GNAC standings before losing two of three games in the NCAA Division II West Region tournament. After a down year in 2012, Holtman-Fletcher has Central Washington back in the hunt for the GNAC championship.
About a month ago, Holtman-Fletcher received some recognition for her coaching success from a familiar source. Ever since Holtman-Fletcher initiated the act of carrying Tucholsky around the bases, Positive Coaching Alliance founder Jim Thompson has written about having your own “Mallory Moment,” in which an individual has the opportunity to do something small but powerful to elevate themselves. After using Holtman-Fletcher’s name as a teaching tool for so many years, he decided it was time to ask her to be a member of the Positive Coaching Alliance board.
Among her peers on that board: NBA coaching legend Phil Jackson, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, and gold medal-winning Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug.
“For me, from a small town, from a small school, it’s just a huge honor to be (associated with) the same committee as those people,” Holtman-Fletcher said.
Holtman-Fletcher has not yet done any work with PCA because of her coaching commitments, but she’s excited to find out what opportunities come with the new position. She hopes that her involvement with PCA can help her bring information and resources to the people in her small, rural community in and around Ellensburg, which is where she hopes she can remain long-term.
“I love Central, I love the team, I think it’s an amazing place to raise a family, my husband loves it here, and so I don’t see myself going anywhere in the near future at all,” said Holtman-Fletcher.. “If possible I would like to stay here and be able to travel and do the other things I like to do − live the coaching life and do motivational speaking.”
‘IT WAS ABOUT A PERSON BEING NICE’
The past five years have been a blur for Holtman-Fletcher, Wallace, and Tucholsky. For all of them, that Saturday afternoon of April 26, 2008, simultaneously feels like a distant memory and like it could have happened yesterday. They have all moved one in their lives in different ways, but the story of that moment lives on.
For all three, that’s the most important thing.
“People appreciate that one person or team acted with sportsmanship toward another person,” Tucholsky said. “It doesn’t matter that we were playing softball or playing a sport. It was about a person being nice to another person, no matter what it cost them.”