Wes Holly is about to finish his 33rd season as Milligan University’s softball coach. Fittingly, it will come at the NAIA national tournament.
“We still get very excited whenever we make it,” Holly said. “I’m thrilled for our team. None of them have experienced that.”
Holly’s recent teams made the NAIA tournament in 2016 and 2017.
“This will be a new experience for this team,” Holly said. “I’m excited for them. I told them the other day, they’re one of the best 40 teams in the country and if they win the opening round they’ll be one of the best 10.”
The NAIA tournament starts May 17 with opening-round series around the country. The 10 winners advance to the final site in Columbus, Georgia.
Milligan is 22-4 and won the AAC regular-season title to gain an automatic bid to the NAIA tournament. The pairings and opening-round sites will be announced Tuesday.
Holly was recently chosen as the Appalachian Athletic Conference coach of the year, the eighth time he’s been so honored by a league.
For Holly, it’s been a labor of love. He spent four years as an assistant coach at Tusculum while his daughter Kim pitched there. The Pioneers made the NAIA nationals twice during that time.
At the time, Milligan was playing slow-pitch softball and Duard Walker, the legendary athletic director and coach at Milligan, asked Holly to come and start a fast-pitch program. Holly had played high-level fast-pitch softball around the Southeast for 23 years and was up to the challenge.
“God bless Coach Walker,” Holly said. “He was a true Milligan man in and out. We got together and talked. He asked me if I’d start the program. I told him I would and then I’d stay a year or two.”
Holly broke into laughter as he relayed that story because here he is, 33 years later, still running the show.
“That year or two turned into 33,” he said.
The 73-year-old Holly still pitches batting practice and hits infield and outfield practice. He admits to slowing down a bit, but he’s still at the top of his game. He’s not about to think about retirement.
“Me and the Lord have talked about that,” said Holly, whose son Wes Jr. serves as assistant coach at Milligan. “He’ll let me know when it’s time.”
During those 33 years, Holly’s teams have won 925 games. That ranks him as the second-winningest active coach in the NAIA.
“I guess the secret to that is the good Lord has blessed me, kept me healthy,” Holly said. “And I still enjoy it and love working with these young kids. I’ve been blessed.”
When the Buffaloes open play in the national tournament, they’ll have the nation’s leading hitter spearheading the attack. Katie Cronin, a Greeneville native, comes into the tournament batting .578. That’s tops among all NAIA players and she was the AAC player of the year.
Cronin is one of a handful of local payers on the team. More than half of the roster comes from East Tennessee, something that wasn’t possible years ago.
“It’s changed a lot from when I first started,” Holly said. “Fast pitch wasn’t all that common around here. These travel ball teams in the summer have really changed it.”
Holly has an annual local tournament that brings in 38-40 teams and he does a lot of recruiting during that event.
“I try to get local girls,” he said. “It helps us and it helps them. It gives their parents an opportunity to watch them play.”