A decade ago, Nicole Christian came home.
This week, the 10-year McLoughlin High softball coach, who led the Pioneers to Oregon state 4A softball championships in 2014 and ‘15 (as well as state runner-ups in ‘13 and ‘16), is going home — again.
Christian recently accepted the reins of the Eastern Oregon University softball program, where she earned Cascade Collegiate Conference Player of the Year on the EOU squad that placed fourth in the NAIA National Tournament in 1999.
A 1996 Mac-Hi grad, Christian was a four-year Pioneers letterman in volleyball, basketball and softball before embarking on her stellar career with the Mountaineers.
She was inducted in the EOU Hall of Fame in 2013, and still holds several school career records at the school, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in health and physical education.
And Christian was recognized at Mac-Hi last fall, when she entered the Pioneers’ Hall of Fame.
“There’s been some great support at Mac-Hi, and I appreciate, over the past 10 years, some of the people that went beyond just admin help,” she said of her time with the Pioneers. “There’s been some great support in that school district.”
Now, Christian heads an hour-and-a-half to the southeast.
“I’ve always felt like La Grande’s my second home,” she said. “Being able to come back and see those faces, and just the community. I went down and was at a tournament last weekend, and I had a bunch of La Grande parents congratulating me. Some of them I didn’t even know, but maybe they know OF me from my time at Mac-Hi and Eastern, and they’re all, ‘We’re so excited you’re here!’
“So, it’s one of those things where I’ve always wanted to move back to La Grande, and now I’ve got that opportunity to!” she said. “So I’m excited!”
After graduating EOU, Christian took over as head softball coach at La Grande High for three years before moving on to Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, where she was coach for two years.
She then spent three years at Umatilla High before moving back to Milton-Freewater to be with family and take over the Mac-Hi softball program from Barry Weis.
Weis had guided the Pioneers into a perennial postseason team, and Christian continued that tradition.
In the 10 years she spent as the Mac-Hi softball coach, the Pioneers made the state tournament each year.
Christian’s career record as head coach is 315-215, and she figures she’s got more than 200 wins at Mac-Hi.
“I’ve never missed a season, I’ve just kind of moved,” she said of her coaching career.
The move back to her alma mater and the collegiate coaching ranks is a new experience for her.
Christian’s already jumped head first into recruiting.
After signing with EOU a week ago last Thursday, she and her father, Bob (who has also assisted her in one for or another at each of her other coaching venues), were in Portland scouting players.
And a group of La Grande High players met with her on Friday, as Christian has wasted no time in her goal to look for talent closer to home.
“After we (Mac-Hi) won state titles in 2014-15, La Grande has now won back-to-back state titles,” she said of the Pioneers’ Greater Oregon League foe. “La Grande has some great talent, we’ve (the Pioneers) had great talent.”
The Mountaineers do have Weston-McEwen’s Jessica Lambert, and had a Pendleton outfielder on the roster last season, but Christian has her eye on other local talent.
She points to a trio of Mac-Hi grads and former Pioneer players, Colette Robert, Micha Fortune and Mallory Copeland, who were all on the College of Idaho’s roster last season.
Robert (who ended up at the Caldwell, Idaho, school by way of the University of New Mexico) has now graduated.
“So now I get to see those girls next year, I’m just on the other side of it!” Christian said of her new CCC foes. “So we’ll be good ‘frenemies,’ which is what their parents are calling it!”
Eastern Oregon’s foes in the CCC, along with College of Idaho, are defending NAIA national champion Southern Oregon, Oregon Tech, Corban, Carroll, British Columbia, Providence, Northwest and Northwest Christian.
Christian has her hands full preparing to contend in the improving CCC next season. The Mountaineers compiled a 7-20 conference record last season, 13-31.
Southern Oregon, meanwhile, won the CCC title with a 24-3 record, and was 51-8 overall.
The Mountaineers lost six players to graduation this year, and have 13 returning, she said.
Former EOU coach Erin Dickhausen signed five players before leaving the post, most of whom Christian has yet to learn much about.
“So I’ve got some holes to fill,” Christian said, as she can have 22-28 players on the squad.
And a coaching staff is also a priority.
Christian said she’s already got some ideas for her new staff.
“I want a staff that has the same goals (as I do),” Christian said. “It’s about working hard and making the program better.”
That goal extends to the community of La Grande, which Christian tried to do in Milton-Freewater.
She said the outpouring of community backing for the Mac-Hi softball program was incredible.
“There’s some great parents, Mac-Hi’s got good support in softball,” Christian said of the Pioneers’ future. “I just hope the numbers turn out.
“We’ve been competitive enough to where the community wanted to build a big complex for us, so those are the things that I think pay tribute to our success as a program at Mac-Hi,” she said. “Which is awesome, especially in a small community.
“And that’s what I want to do at La Grande, get that support at the community level. Because I feel that support tumbles down from the college to the high school to ASA.”
Christian has already begun that process, as she’s met with ASA coaches in La Grande and knows the coaches at La Grande High well.
“We have a great working friendship,” Christian said.
She said that one big change from the high school level to the collegiate is the level of competitiveness.
“The pressure’s on,” Christian said. “Winning matters. We have a great conference. In Southern (Oregon), our conference just won NAIA nationals! Our conference is really starting to pick up, which is good for us.
“I’m excited just to get back into the college competition! I’m just so excited!”