Pedersen On Sports

Stephanie Nicholson has had an interesting journey from prep softball star to championship coach

A running toilet sent me down memory lane with Stephanie Nicholson last week.

While sifting through boxes of keepsakes to see what could be salvaged from flooding in her home, Nicholson came across a stack of photographs. Included was a picture of her as a 14-year-old sophomore being interviewed by an intrepid young sports reporter (!) following a softball game at Flowing Wells High School.

The pic was from 15 years ago, back when I still thought I'd someday be writing for USA Today or anchoring SportsCenter. Nicholson was an incredibly intense, dedicated, focused and mature-beyond-her-years shortstop for the top prep softball program in Arizona.

That was before Nicholson was labeled as the bad kid, before who she was and how she lived her life became a source of criticism from others.

Today, Nicholson is approaching 30 and is in a great place, personally and professionally. She's the head coach of the softball team at Canyon del Oro High, which entered this week fighting for its third straight state title—and second in as many seasons under Nicholson. In March, she was married to her girlfriend of six years, Lisa Curran, in a beautiful ceremony at the Tucson Museum of Art that in the eyes of this state's closed-minded leadership doesn't count.

That doesn't stop Nicholson from proudly displaying a blingy diamond-encrusted band on her left hand (her 2012 state title ring gleams from her right hand).

"It's always been a part of who I am," Nicholson said of her sexuality. "I don't try to hide it."

Nicholson came out during her senior year at Flowing Wells, when her Lady Caballeros teammates became aware of her relationship with another player. She didn't think it would matter to any of them, but soon she became the subject of an increased amount of hazing, far more than a senior captain would normally experience.

This hazing and cattiness came to a head during a midseason trip to Bullhead City, where Flowing Wells was in the prestigious Tournament of Champions. The two-time defending state champs blitzed through the 40-team tournament, and were in line to ascend to No. 1 in a national poll of prep softball teams.

But following the title game win, some teammates took issue with her helping a person in a wheelchair get across the street outside their hotel.

"They didn't like that I was delaying their going-out time," Nicholson recalled. "It was like a Mean Girls situation."

When Nicholson returned to her hotel room, she found that teammates had gone through her belongings and taken what she described as a "precious item." After she confronted them, someone tattled on her for bringing a knife on the trip.

"I hadn't brought it as a weapon; I carried it around as a tool," she said. "But because of the type of knife - it was a butterfly knife ..."

Deemed in possession of a deadly weapon on a school trip, Nicholson returned to Tucson no longer a member of the softball team. She was also suspended from Flowing Wells, and says she was close to being expelled.

The Bullhead City incident was the start of a tailspin for the Lady Cabs, who flamed out in the second half of the season and failed to make the state tournament in Nicholson's senior year. It's something she's reminded of every day at CDO practices and home games: CDO's 2001 state title banner is on the outfield wall.

Nicholson had already secured a full-ride scholarship to play softball for the University of Washington, the defending NCAA champion, when she was kicked off her high school team. The scholarship was still there, but now she was entering college with a reputation.

Nicholson played one season at Washington before transferring to Oklahoma State. At OSU, Nicholson put together a solid career, starting all three years and setting a school record with 13 home runs in 2005, her senior year. That season ended with a homecoming trip to Tucson for an NCAA tournament regional. She was also named an Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar while completing a degree in athletic training.

Nicholson said the OSU years were mostly without incident, though she felt her reputation caused her to get in trouble for ticky-tack things that other players weren't dinged for.

It's been all good for Nicholson since then, starting with one year as an athletic training intern at Villanova in 2007. That's where she met Lisa, a member of Villanova's softball team.

From there, she spent two years as a graduate assistant coach at Florida Atlantic while completing her master's in exercise science. Then she came back to Tucson to work as a personal trainer and performance coach while returning to the coaching ranks as an assistant at Catalina High School.

She interviewed to be the head coach at Amphitheater High School in 2011, but instead was selected to replace Kelly Fowler at CDO, where she fit right in with the school's rich tradition and led the Dorados to a 33-5 record and the Division II title.

With everything she's been through and experienced, Nicholson would have every right to be a hard-ass who keeps a constant eye on her players to ensure they stay in line.

Instead, all she cares about is that they try hard and give it their all.

"I give the girls a lot of freedom," she said. "It's not about their jersey looking good. It's about how they play on the field. When they hear me talk about the game, they listen."

And despite coaching in affluent Oro Valley, where money, entitlement and Republican family values could lead to clashes with parents over anything from playing time to her personal life, Nicholson considers herself the luckiest person in the world for the sheer lack of conflict.

"I had four (player) families attend my wedding," she said. "There have been no problems. They support what I'm doing."

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