As he nears the end of his 30th season as the Lady Buffs’ head coach, it’s obvious the rhythm has been right.
The only head coach Milligan fast-pitch softball has ever known, Holly harbors an 876-534 career record with the Appalachian Athletic Conference tournament in direct sight.
“The wins are nice, but I have to honestly say I get more satisfaction out of coaching the girls,” said Holly when asked to identify the major highlights of his illustrious career. “Then later on in life they stay in touch with you and come back and express their appreciation for what you did for them … hoping somewhere along the way that we were a small influence in their lives — and hopefully help them become better individuals.”
Each of those 1,410 fast-pitch games have been with the Lady Buffs, and the 70-year-old Holly ranks second among active NAIA coaches for all-time wins.
Having led Milligan to eight league championships (Tennessee-Virginia Athletic Conference, AAC) and three national tournaments, he’s a seven-time conference and two-time district coach of the year. Moreover, he received the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Region 3 coach-of-the-year award in 1992.
Holly spent four years as a Tusculum College assistant coach before accepting the Milligan job. His daughter, Kim, was a two-time all-district pitcher for the Lady Pioneers and part of two NAIA national tournament teams during Wes’ time at Tusculum — and both are Carter County Sports Hall of Famers.
A former Unaka High athlete who played ASA men’s fast-pitch softball for more than two decades, Holly is currently assisted by his son Wes Holly Jr. — a former NCAA Division I and II head coach.
Holly Sr., whose 2018 squad stands at 22-18 (15-9 finish in AAC), spoke further about his long-running tour of collegiate duty.
Q: Thirty years as a head coach in one place isn’t exactly commonplace. What has made the situation at Milligan such a comfortable fit for you?
A: After I left Tusculum — my daughter graduated in ’87 — Coach (Duard) Walker hollered at me and said Milligan was getting ready to start fast-pitch (in 1989). He asked me (to coach) and he’s a good friend of mine. He actually played baseball against my dad when they were growing up. And I said, ‘Well, Coach, I’ll start your program,’ so I was planning on staying only a year or two. Now, I’m completing my 30th year.
Milligan’s a great school. They have a great mission and we’re academically strong. I played fast-pitch for 23 years — major open — so I love the game, have a passion for it. I guess it’s because God has blessed me and that’s my purpose in life.
Me and Jim Ensor started Little League and coached all the way through Little League, Babe Ruth. Then I went into high school and helped my daughter at Unaka — went to Tusculum and started a program. I love the sport, I have a passion for it and, more importantly, I enjoy helping young people.
Q: Including your time at Tusculum, you’re completing your 34th year of coaching on the collegiate level. Did you ever think the sport would take you this far and how much do you still enjoy what you’re doing?
A: I never really figured that the sport would take me this far. When I first came to Milligan, I really didn’t have any intention of staying here 30 years. But, as I say, Milligan is a great school. I hope that we have represented them well. Once we got started playing and got the program developed, we’ve reached some success. As I say, I still have a passion for the game. I love to try to help young girls and try to teach them and improve their skills and everything. I guess this is where the Lord is wanting me to stay until I retire.
Q: You orchestrated the transition from slow-pitch softball to the fast-pitch game at Milligan. How did that play out?
A: Just imagine this, coming to Milligan and taking a slow-pitch program and converting to fast-pitch after just coming off a national team (at Tusculum). It was a tremendous transition. My first year — I’ll never forget it — we won eight ballgames. And I thought, ‘Lord, what have you got me into?’ So the next couple of years we were able to recruit and we got Tonya (Bailey) out of Daniel Boone. In her sophomore year (1992), we went 43-9 and went to the national tournament in Pensacola, Florida.
I talked to Coach Walker, I said if we’re going to play and be competitive in this program, we need to play good teams — that’s the only way you can get better. So I started taking them down to Georgia and Florida for spring break, and we would play all the top teams: Kennesaw, University of West Florida — all those teams so (the players) see where they need to be. And it actually paid off for us. They wanted to compete at that level, so we got successful, honestly, very quickly. We have tried to maintain that level of play ever since we’ve been here.
Q: Is there anything in coaching that’s been elusive to this point that you’d still like to achieve?
A: Well, we’ve had much success and I’m very proud of the program year in and year out. We’ve made it to the national tournament three times, but we haven’t won it. That’s ultimately our goal every year when we start — to get to the national tournament and win it. That’s a pretty good task, so that’s something we’re still chasing that we haven’t achieved yet.
Q: Wes Jr. was an assistant coach under you before moving on to become a head coach. How good has it been having him back at Milligan?
A: It has been very gratifying to bring him back. This is his third year back with me. He grew up on the ballfield with me and actually played on our men’s fast-pitch team with me when he was 16. So he’s had the experience at D-II (Tusculum) and D-I (Kennesaw). With the knowledge he has to come back and help, it’s a great help in the fact that I can trust my assistant coach. He’s very fundamentally sound and can basically do what I can do. So if I need to work with my infield and hitting, I can turn him loose with pitching — and vice versa. He’s well skilled in the game, so that’s very helpful to where you have somebody you can depend on to get done what you need to do when you’re working.
Q: Have you given any thought to how much longer you’d like to keep this up?
A: Everybody asks me that and they’ve been asking me that for the last five, six years. I actually talked to Mark Fox (the school’s vice president for athletics and student development) about it. I said, ‘Hey, I’ll retire anytime you want me to.’ And he said, ‘You stay as long as you want to.’ And I said, ‘Well, I still enjoy it, love it. I can still throw my (batting practice) and I do the whole nine yards.’ So I said when I get to the point that I can’t throw BP or hit infield, then I’ll know it’s time to go. But I said the Lord’s blessed me and I have good health. As long as I have good health, I’m really in no hurry to retire because what would I retire to? So I still enjoy this. I have to say the girls keep me young. I’m 70 but sometimes they tell me I act like I’m 40, so I appreciate that fact. They keep me young.