Nichole Victoria, 23 years old and owner of a sociology degree from UCLA, is sometimes annoyed by the occasionally childish behavior of the Camarillo High softball players in her charge.
How easy it is to forget what it is like to be just 15 or 16 and playing for a high school championship.
Camarillo (23-2-1) plays Mater Dei (29-1) tonight at 7:30 in the Southern Section Division I title game at Mayfair Park in Lakewood.
“Cindy, do you think that’s smart considering your strained leg muscle?” Victoria barked at sophomore pitcher Cindy Ball, who was allowing her giddy teammates to jump into her arms after Camarillo’s upset semifinal victory Tuesday over top-seeded Foothill.
In an instant, Ball snapped to attention as if a drill sergeant had just caught her breaking ranks.
Victoria, a first-year coach, shook her head in dis
gust, then turned away.
Camarillo players are as rambunctious as they are talented, as evidenced by routine wrestling matches and cartwheel contests.
“And when they stretch, it’s more like the stretching of their jaws,” Victoria said.
Victoria is fun and humorous--off the field. But when it comes to softball, she is all business. Her players know that better than anyone.
“She’s scary sometimes,” said Brooke Rutschman, a junior shortstop who was the only player in the Marmonte League to hit better than .400.
“She never says anything good,” said sophomore catcher Jessica Mendoza. “So when she does, you have to sit there and [savor] the moment.”
Victoria took over the Camarillo program last year after Darwin Tolzin was forced to resign amid an illegal practice scandal. She is a coach who still plays high-level amateur softball during the summer.
A self-described perfectionist, the former UCLA star and Camarillo graduate has a hard time accepting anything but flawless play from a group of athletes she believes should win a section title.
“I tell them, ‘If you guys weren’t this good or this talented, then I would be OK with two losses. But you’re so much better than that,’ ” Victoria said.
“It’s really hard for me, stepping down a level.”
Victoria has made the transition look easy. No other Southern Section team from the region has lost as few games as Camarillo.
A cynic might suggest that having every starter back from a team that finished 22-6 last year might have something to do with Camarillo’s success. But the Scorpions could have easily folded after losing their beloved Tolzin. Without the right leader, Camarillo might have joined the ranks of underachievers.
Instead, the Scorpions are taking a run at the title.
“We’ve run many times because I’ve just been so irritated with them at practice,” Victoria said. “I just drop my bat and say, ‘Go,’ and they run.”
Said Rutschman: “One time she just said, ‘Go home.’ ”
Victoria, who was coached by Tolzin her senior year, is not a Tolzin coaching clone.
“Darwin is more laid back with things; he wasn’t as harsh,” Mendoza said. “Probably never ever yelled like Nichole yells at us. But it’s good that Nichole gets in our face because it gets us moving.”
A loss against Westlake in the last game of the regular season caused Camarillo to miss out on a share of the Marmonte League title, but since the playoffs started the Scorpions have not faltered.
After surviving a scare against Rio Mesa--a 2-1, 12-inning victory in the second round--they have been in high gear. Camarillo has outscored playoff opponents, 9-2.
“I think that they’ve finally figured it out,” Victoria said of her players. “They realize that they have to take control from the start.”
The Westlake loss provided the motivation.
“We just ran the next day at practice,” Victoria said. “That’s all we did. Then we had a big talk about what we’ve done and what we wanted to do in [the playoffs].”
Apparently, it wasn’t just talk.
Scorpion pitchers Melanie Richardson (10-1) and Ball (12-1) have allowed only 12 hits in 36 innings during the playoffs. Camarillo has committed only two errors.
“They’re really hungry to win it,” said Victoria, who won an NCAA title with UCLA in 1992. “I’ve told them the whole year, ‘You don’t know how good it feels to win it all.’ ”
That’s true. But on the flip side, Victoria doesn’t know what it’s like to wear a soiled uniform that hasn’t been washed in two weeks. Her sophomore second baseman, Tommee Payan, does.
“I was looking at her before the [Foothill] game and her uniform was filthy,” Victoria said. “I asked her, ‘Did you wash your uniform yet?’ And she said, ‘No, it’s good luck.’ ”
Victoria has come to learn she can’t control laundry habits, can’t score a winning run and can’t stop her players from acting their age.
“It’s kind of like it’s out of my hands,” she said. “I feel like I have no control. Like I have nothing to do with it.
“It’s very frustrating.”
And at the same time, rewarding.