“We are so glad you came back (to coaching),” Van Nuys Athletic Director Dan Levy chanted toward Van Nuys Softball Coach Dion Coley as the Wolves were celebrating their first ever City softball championship, following their 6-1 victory against Washington Prep in the Division III title game.
“You got that right,” a voice could be heard saying from the dugout.
Coley smiled. “It’s not about me, it’s about the girls,” pointing to his players.
Actually it’s about both.
Yes, the team lost its season opener to Chatsworth by a 23-0 score — one of seven games they gave up 20 or more runs. Yes, it has an overall losing record for the 2016 season (12-13-1). But the Wolves are champions because of belief and faith. They believed that they would improve despite the lopsided defeats. And they had faith in their coach, who knew something about overcoming tremendous odds.
Coley stepped away from coaching in 2013 with the birth of his son. He and his wife learned their baby was born with a serious heart condition. It required three different operations to stabilize, “but he’s good now. And I felt I could come back,” Coley said.
He returned to Van Nuys last year, inheriting a team that had gone 0-13 in 2013. He got them to 10 overall wins last year, and the Wolves reached the Division III final. But the season ended in a 9-5 loss to South East of South Gate.
Coley scheduled harder in 2016, playing City Division I teams like Chatsworth and Palisades, and Southern Section teams like Sierra Canyon. They also had to face Valley Mission League powers (and Division I teams) Kennedy, San Fernando, and Sylmar twice in league play.
They may have been beaten. But they weren’t discouraged.
“We worked a lot on the fundamentals, because most of these girls had never played, or maybe 2-3 years tops,” Coley said. “We had our ups-and-downs during the season. But I knew once we got into the playoffs, going through the hard knocks against really good teams would really slow the game down for them in the playoffs.”
Coley also took to heart a suggestion from his players.
“One of my seniors brought to my attention that we needed some team bonding,” he said. “I had been doing so much coaching and conditioning, I hadn’t even thought about that aspect of the game. So we all went to a Dodger game in April, did some other things, and it seemed to bring the kids together. I’m glad she brought that to my attention. It’s something we’re going to do from now on.”
By the time the Wolves got to the Division III playoffs — and were given the bracket’s top seed in part because of their difficult schedule — they were ready. They blew past Los Angeles schools Locke, Contreras and Torres by a combined 45-10 score. They didn’t expect much resistance from Washington Prep, seeded 10th, in the title game on May 21 at Cal State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson.
Still, the Generals opened a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. Wolves starting pitcher Deanna Villa hit Riccail Gillespie, the game’s first batter, with the game’s first pitch. Gillespie would advance to second on a wild pitch, and score on a two-out double by Tia Burch.
Coley initially thought it was a case of nerves.
“I was telling the Time Warner people (who were broadcasting the game) that I felt good about [Villa] because she pitched in the game last year so I didn’t think she’d have a lot of nerves. Then she hits their kid with the first pitch of the game,” the coach said.
“I asked her if it was nerves and she said, “no, my hands are slippery. The ball is too new.’”
Villa said she wasn’t worried.
“Our last game (against Torres) they scored early and we came back. We know how to fight through it,” Villa said.
Villa, a sophomore, did settle in after that, striking out seven and walking three while giving up a total of four hits. And the Wolves offense did the rest, scoring in every inning they came to bat except the fourth.
The Generals were their own worst enemy on defense, committing four errors that led to four unearned runs. They doomed themselves on the base paths as well, running into two double plays including the one in the seventh inning that ended the contest.
But even as the Wolves — who collected 10 hits off Washington freshmen starter Monet Brown — were methodically stretching out their lead, Villa said the team was locked into a specific mindset.
“We were telling ourselves the whole game ‘act like you’re behind, act like you’re behind,’” she said. “‘Never think you’re ahead of the game.’”
Villa said she hoped Coley and the school would let them keep their uniforms.
She will definitely keep the championship medal.
“That’s mine,” she said with a wide grin.