Wesleyan head softball coach Nichole Dixon poses for a portrait with her senior players Lillie Baker, Jenna Bartlett, Sydney Stone, Emily Farrow, Dacia Jones and Landyn Duley prior to their game against GAC on Tuesday. Since starting eight years ago, Dixon has helped turn the varsity softball program around resulting in being state runner-up the last two years. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
By Christine Troyke
One early evening nearly a decade ago, a bunch of Wesleyan softball players slung their bags up and meandered toward the parking lot at Buford.
They weren’t upset. They weren’t even particularly quiet. Instead it was just another day and they chattered about what was going on that weekend. Just another day of getting run-ruled by a region power.
That resignation is long gone.
The Wolves have been state runner-up for two years running and are aiming at the final measure of greatness — a championship.
It’s a far cry from what Nichole Dixon was handed eight years ago.
“I think I came at the right time,” Dixon said. “The girls I had the first year were a great group and they were talented.
“But I think the one thing they lacked is just someone to say, you can actually win. To have them set up goals and then have coaches around them that would hold them accountable.”
It happened gradually, but it did happen.
“I remember my first year, I think it was a 10-0 game in a tournament against Buford and I just told the kids to use that as a measuring stick, so the next time we play them it will be closer,” Dixon said. “Unfortunately, those first two years I was here, we were AA and Buford was always in our region. And GAC was a powerhouse. So I could say, ‘OK, yeah, we just got run-ruled. What are we going to do next? There’s not an option to pout about it. Let’s figure out a way to improve.’
“I really have been fortunate with the kids I’ve had here, and my coaches, where they refused to allow excuses to be made. Because that’s not a very positive way of thinking. We’ve had our fair share of getting run-ruled and we don’t look at that and say we’re going to cry about it.”
Part of the education process was basic stuff.
“I kept looking around and saying, ‘Well, we’ve got a good number of athletes,’” Dixon said. “But we were still talking about, OK, if it’s an inside pitch, you can hit it early. If it’s an outside pitch, you need to let it get deeper.”
Even simply identifying a rise ball had to be learned.
“Granted it was GAC’s pitcher who was awesome, but we lost to them, I think, 1-0 and (I made them run) every time we swung at a rise ball,” Dixon said. “I’m talking about not like every once in a while we got fooled. I think every time somebody was swinging above their head.”
So the coaches showed the players what a rise ball looked like coming from a pitching machine and worked from there. Dixon and her staff also have challenged the players to be more than a team, to be a family.
“We call it one body, many parts,” Dixon said. “It’s scripture based, Corinthians I 12:12. But what that means is everyone has a role. No one’s role is bigger than the other person’s.”
She asks them to move on after a mistake, to just think about the next pitch.
“I think that is one of the biggest things I want to teach young women — in life, in softball, in whatever you’re doing, you’re going to have another opportunity and you don’t want to put your head down,” Dixon said. “Ever.
“Can my attitude toward what seems to be failure change? Can I take that, learn from it and get better?”
There was a moment in 2008 with senior Paige Hamlin in the circle that sticks with Dixon when she thinks about the way Wesleyan’s program has changed in the last decade.
“Up to that point, a lot of our players were tough, but a lot of them also were mentally just not very strong,” Dixon said.
Hamlin hurt her ankle fairly seriously in that state playoff game and the Wolves didn’t have many other options. Dixon yelled for Brittany Mitchell, a young and powerful hitter who had yet to master pitching.
“We called her Wild Thing,” Dixon said. “Basically I had no other choice. Either Paige pulled it together and worked through some pain or we probably were not going to get the win. Because at the time, we were not scoring a lot of runs.”
Hamlin gave Dixon the fierce look good pitchers nearly always give a manager who wants to pull them from a game.
“We won that game and I remember going through the line like, ‘Wow, we have a pitcher that will be that tough — and she’s clearly badly injured her ankle — we have a chance,’” Dixon said. “She fought for us. It was awesome.”
Part of being consistently good is developing feeder programs. As a private school with grades K-12 on the same campus, Wesleyan is uniquely disposed to creating seamless transitions as players move up the ladder. It’s one of the reasons the Wolves’ girls basketball team has been so wildly successful under head coach Jan Azar.
“When she first came here, we had good players but we didn’t really have a program,” said Azar, who coached Dixon in high school at Mount De Sales Academy in Macon and recruited her to Wesleyan. “She started fifth-and sixth-grade teams and got coaches in here so she’s not teaching when they get to the high school level. She’s done a great job.”
As with the varsity level, Dixon credits the coaches for the elementary and middle school teams with the program’s progress. That includes a couple of former Wesleyan players in Anna Sheppard (now Vance) and Mary Stephenson. It’s also having people like Dan Henning, whose daughters are in middle and high school, staying to keep coaching grade-schoolers.
“He’s a travel ball coach so he knows what to do,” Dixon said. “But we have so many kids who have never played before that he also knows how to meet them where they are.
“I felt like I’ve been very blessed with good coaches that worked with me over the years. This is a community where if you ask people to help, they’ll step up.”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed outside the program, either. One of the things that impresses Buford head coach Tony Wolfe so much is the quality of Dixon’s staff.
“It’s really fun to watch them, not just in a game, but over the years, build that program,” Wolfe said. “Coaching staffs make the program.”
But Wolfe, who feels like he gets too much of the credit for Buford’s powerful program, also recognizes the major contribution Dixon has made over the years.
“She’s a wonderful person, but she’s a competitive person, don’t make any mistake about that,” Wolfe said. “We believe kids will meet your expectations. She has high expectations and the kids respond to that.”
The family atmosphere shows and Wolfe knows the players will go to the wall for Dixon.
“I’m one of Nichole’s biggest fans and I’m really impressed with her ability to connect with her kids,” Wolfe said. “They enjoy playing for her and it makes a big difference. The better your coaching staff connects with the kids, the harder and longer they’re going to play. They’re going to fight.
“There’s a real respect for each other and a real care for each other.”
Azar sees it, too. She appreciates it as a coach and as Wesleyan’s assistant athletic director.
“But what I look forward to most is for Nichole to coach Nicole Azar,” she said. “I’m excited for my own child. She’s a great role model for our girls.”