Rebuilding a sports program and changing its culture takes time. Chisum High School head softball coach Denise Holland knows this better than most.
During the 2019 season, the Lady Mustangs came within a game of ending a playoff drought which has lasted since the 2014 season. This past season did not allow Chisum a chance to end the drought as COVID-19 canceled the remainder of the young season.
Nonetheless, the program has taken big strides under Holland’s leadership, which is a fulfilling feeling for the head coach preparing to enter her fourth year at the helm.
“The girls have succeeded at the goals they’ve set for themselves and for the program,” Holland said. “It’s really fun when you get to see them celebrate that big moment. Even if it’s not winning the game, it may be a win at the plate, a win in the outfield and the wins may come in practice because it’s like the lightbulb finally went off for them. Whenever they get to celebrate that moment, it’s really rewarding.”
Holland has a keen eye for the game both as a player and a coach, and she depended on her playing experience to help shape her into the coach she is today.
“In the beginning when I first started coaching, I relied a lot on how I did things in my playing experiences,” Holland said. “As I’ve grown as a coach, I’ve been able to work with different types of players. You can’t always have the same approach whenever it comes to all of your team, so maturing as a coach, I’ve been able to learn more about the game, other positions and what works best for each player.”
As a young player, Holland grew up in Arlington and went on to play two years at Paris Junior College for coach Vernon Carter. In both of her years as a Lady Dragon catcher and third baseman, Holland won the team’s MVP award called the Vernon Carter Cup, and the experiences she had with PJC still resonate with her today.
“I played for Coach (Vernon) Carter at Paris Junior College, and he really gave me access to experience softball at a college level,” Holland said. “I was really blessed in that manner, and my experiences there were unforgettable. The people you meet, the travels you get to go on and all the other things you get to do are things I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
Holland coached travel ball fresh out of college and, even though she believed she had things all figured out with her way of operating, she realized the humility it takes to be an effective softball coach.
“Before I became a school coach and I was just a travel coach years ago, I coached another set of girls who are already graduated from college,” Holland said. “I saw myself as one person then. I was a fresh athlete out of college, kind of had a big head and I felt like I knew what was right for them whether they liked it or not. Now years on down the road after learning a little bit about coaching, one of the most important things I keep at the forefront of my focus is doing what’s best for each athlete. This past year, I had 11 softball players for Chisum, and at the forefront of my mind was doing what was best for those 11 athletes. It brought me down over the years to realize what is important.”
One of the most humbling honors for Holland is the fact she now coaches her daughter, Payton, an incoming sophomore for the Lady Mustangs. On top of sharing the mother-daughter bond in the dugout, Holland and her daughter have pushed each other to be at their best as a high-level coach and player duo as well.
“It’s a unique experience to get to have these moments and share these moments together,” Holland said. “It’s one thing for me to get to see her accomplish things from the stands, but it’s another thing to see her accomplish something with the team that I get to be a part of. I think it’s a neat aspect of our relationship that we get to share that no one else can take away from us, and she’s a fun one to coach. She’s going to be the one to challenge me the most. We have a 30-minute rule where we can’t talk to each other about the game 30 minutes afterward. That way, she can clear her head and I can clear mine, and then we can talk about what matters most. I consider it a blessing.”
Spending her childhood in the metroplex came with its perks for Holland, as she and her family were able to participate in unique opportunities that yielded great rewards.
“Growing up for several years with my grandparents, all of my cousins and I got to show our grandparents’ donkeys at the Ft. Worth stock show,” Holland said. “My donkey won first place.”
When going through times of stress, like most people, Holland aims to go to her happy place. As long as her children are by her side, Holland knows how to feel most at home and at peace.
“The mountains are my happy place, and as a matter of fact, my family and I are taking a vacation to Red River, New Mexico in about three weeks,” Holland said. “There’s just something peaceful about being in the mountains, but I’d say my true happy place is being with my kids.”
Coaching a group of teenage girls is no easy task, and the unpredictability may be the biggest surprise each day Holland comes into work.
“The things teenage girls say on a day-to-day basis, you’re never prepared for it,” Holland said. “It can be at the wrong moment, the wrong time and completely irrelevant to what’s going on. They just feel like what they have to say is important at that time.”
Holland looks to continue to build upon the foundation of Chisum’s softball program, learning and celebrating along the way one day at a time.