COLLEGE OF IDAHO PITCHER LEADS SOFTBALL TEAM TO NATIONAL TOURNAMENT
Nickayla Skinner hates to lose, and she hates to let other people down.
Driven by that motivation, she's been the force behind the Coyotes' success this season.
"I wouldn't be where I am without my team," Skinner said. "We just feed off each other."
Skinner tossed her ninth shutout of the season May 3 as the Coyotes defeated Oregon Tech 8-0. With that win, the C of I captured its first Cascade Conference title since 2009 and earned an automatic berth to the NAIA Championships.
The Coyotes, who meet St. Gregory's (Okla.) on Monday, began the season 2-4, but they're taking a nine-game winning streak to Irvine, Calif., for the opening round of the national championships.
"We had expectations at the beginning of the season, and then we didn't do as well as we maybe hoped," Skinner said. "But now, we're like, 'Ugh, we are just so good.' It's funny the confidence we have since winning the CCC tournament."
Along the way, Skinner has been mowing down batters and rewriting the program's record book.
Skinner, the Cascade Conference Pitcher of the Year, went 23-7 with a 1.78 ERA and 222 strikeouts. She leads the Coyotes in career wins (55), shutouts (19), complete games (65), strikeouts (611) and starts (76). The junior has been an all-conference selection three times.
Skinner can also swing a bat. She is a career .342 hitter with 12 home runs, 27 doubles and 63 RBIs.
"She's unbelievable athletically," coach Al Mendiola said. "She has a natural ability and has that savvy for the game. She always knows her surroundings and can field her position as well as any pitcher in the conference, and probably the nation. And it's always a bonus if you have a pitcher who dominates who is also an offensive threat."
Mendiola has known about Skinner's athletic prowess for years.
"He recruited me when I was a freshman in high school (at Mountain Home)," Skinner said. "He was just hounding me. I was getting recruited by other schools, but I wanted to stay local, with my family. They ended up moving to Wyoming in my sophomore year. But I'm still happy here."
Happy and nervous.
"I get so nervous," Skinner said. "Before we played Concordia to get into the CCC tournament, I was so nervous I thought I was going to throw up. I was like, 'This matters so much. What are we going to do if we lose?'"
Thoughts like these have followed Skinner for years.
"I know when she was in high school she always had that anxiety," Mendiola said.
Mendiola said he has tried to work with Skinner to channel her anxiety.
"I get really nervous, but when I get on the mound it just turns into adrenaline," Skinner said. "The amount of adrenaline I have out there is out of control. I can't feel anything out there."
Skinner has learned over time the source of her nervousness.
"I don't want to let my team down," she said. "My anxiety has nothing to do with me. I'm so scared of letting my team down."
She's learned to be good-natured about it, though.
"I have an unfair advantage because I have anxiety," she said. "If I didn't care as much as I do, then I wouldn't have as much anxiety about it."
Mendiola said there's no way Skinner could let him - or her team - down.
"There is not a single girl on this team that has let me down all year," he said. "And they're not going to start now."
Mendiola is grateful that he was able to convince Skinner to play at the C of I.
"I was lucky to get her," he said. "There were D-I schools after her, and we still talk to this day about Boise State. People always wonder how good she could have been at Boise State or (Washington), and I always say I don't care, because she's here.
"I've got a good one."
COLLEGE OF IDAHO RUNNER HAS FIVE NATIONAL TITLES, WANTS MORE
Hillary Holt had won races before - plenty of them - but what she did nine days ago is on a different plateau.
In what the Oregonian newspaper called "a monumental upset," Holt won the women's 1,500 meters at the Oregon Twilight on May 3 at Hayward Field in Eugene. She passed a field of pro runners to win in 4:11.62. Jemma Simpson, a three-time British national champion, finished in second place, more than 4 seconds behind Holt.
"It was pretty huge," Holt said. "I had no idea what was going to come of it, really. Before the race I was really nervous, but I trust (coach) Pat (McCurry), and he told me, 'You're so ready to run.' And I believed it. But I was wondering if I was really capable of running that fast."
Oh, she was.
Holt ran fast enough to become the first College of Idaho runner to qualify for the U.S. Championships. Her time would have qualified her for the Olympic Trials last summer, and was the fifth-fastest time recorded by a college runner this season.
McCurry didn't tell Holt she would be running in the race until three days prior to the event. He wanted to make sure all the elements were in place for her to succeed.
"It was a low-key situation," Holt said. "We went over there together, just the two of us and tried to keep it as low-key as possible. I just said, 'OK, I'm going to race and I'm going to race my hardest and we're going to see what comes of it.'
"I definitely exceeded by expectations."
Holt will run at the U.S. Championships on June 20-23 in Des Moines, Iowa. McCurry doesn't think she'll be out of place in the national spotlight.
"If she races like she did in Eugene, I'm confident she can make the final," he said.
Heady stuff for a runner out of Mountain View High School.
"In high school, I didn't envision being where I am now," said Holt, a junior. "I knew that I loved running. It made me feel good about myself, and I enjoyed putting in the time and effort and seeing myself improve."
Her high school coach, Tracy Harris, saw the potential in Holt, and convinced McCurry, a longtime friend, to give Holt a shot.
"(Harris) was the first one to see it," McCurry said. "He knew she was much, much better than her high school marks showed. We knew we were getting a real diamond, but there was a lot of training development that needed to occur."
Holt laughs when she thinks about that development.
"Pat can tell you how immature I was as a freshman," she said. "I've completely changed from high school. I've started training so much harder. Pat has always said that it's really rare that he meets a runner who really wants to find out what their potential is. It's really, really hard, and you have to fully dedicate yourself to it."
McCurry said Holt has done that - and more.
"She's very, very gifted genetically, but she also has a great mind," he said. "She gets in a race and she believes she can win. My assistant coach says that some athletes will tear their arms off to beat somebody. That's her."
Holt did some more winning at the Cascade Conference Championships this weekend in Gresham, Ore. She defended her 1,500 title Friday as she set a meet record with her time of 4:30.14. On Saturday, she won the 800 in 2:10.99 as she flirted with the meet record. Then she anchored the 4x400-meter relay team to a win before being named Women's Track Athlete of the Meet.
The wins added to an already impressive résumé. Holt is an eight-time All-American and five-time national champion in NAIA cross country and track. She holds the College of Idaho record outdoors in the 400 (57.55), 800 (2:07.64), 1,500 (4:11.62) and indoors in the 800 (2:15.55), mile (4:48.55) and 3,000 (9.45.96).
On the horizon: Those U.S. Championships in June. After that: A potential world-class running career, and possibly even the Olympics (the next Summer Games are in 2016 in Brazil).
"(McCurry) knows that I can be really great and that I can be an elite-level runner on the international and world circuit," Holt said. "That's what I'm going to shoot for."
Chris Langrill: 377-6424