By Ben Hanneman, SWT Sports Writer
For the first time in 22,400-plus innings, Gina Miano will not be swapping Pulaski High School Lady Cougar varsity softball lineup cards with opposing coaches come Spring.
“That’s a lot of innings,” Miano said of that total.
The 49-year-old Emory & Henry University tennis Hall of Famer and the only varsity softball coach Pulaski County High School has ever known stepped down from coaching this summer after 16 seasons to devote more time to what most everyone of Italian descent devotes their time: Family.
Okay, not exactly THAT family.
Miano’s nephew, Anthony Miano, her brother’s eldest, plays outfield for bridge rival Radford High School Bobcats and for a travel team based in Richmond. In late April Anthony signed a letter of intent to play for the Radford University Highlanders.
Gina has rarely seen Anthony play during the school year. After some administrative arm twisting, Miano was instrumental in building the softball program from the ground up beginning in 1996. Their first team formed for the 1997-1998 season.
“They needed someone to start a program and I agreed after being begged,” Miano recalled.
Admittedly, the tennis star and her new coaching staff knew next to nothing about softball in those early days. But learning the hard way is sometimes the best way, as they quickly discovered. One Saturday, after spending the entire day perfecting the lead-off they learned that leadoffs are a softball no-no.
“So we spent all of Monday learning that you have to wait until the ball is released,” Miano recalled. “I keep in touch with a lot of those kids still and that’s one of the funniest stories we keep telling. But things like that happened all the time.”
Since then, Miano’s always been coaching somewhere else come Anthony’s game time. The only games she saw were in the summer. Missing the last few seasons have been especially tough on Gina, especially as Anthony has grown into a legitimate NCAA Division I player.
“He started getting recruited this past fall and I knew then in my mind that if he signed with a D-1 school that the only way to see any of it would be to not coach. Sure enough, he signed with RU.”
So, this spring, Gina trades her Cougar coaching hat for a Highlander fan hat, a decision so tough that Miano was openly emotional – there’s no crying in softball, remember? – when she pulled the players aside and informed them of her resignation after this year’s season-ending banquet at Randolph Park. It was arguably the low point of her coaching tenure.
“It was heart-wrenching for me,” Miano said. “I was crying the last 20 minutes of the banquet and nobody knew what was going on. My passion for softball and the kids and coaching hasn’t changed. I wanted to retire from coaching when I was ready and was done with it. But I’m not there, so this has been a very, very emotional decision because I still love it. I love this team and I know this team is so talented. But family is first and I’ve followed (Anthony) and been part of his baseball world since he was very little.”
In 16 seasons at PCHS Miano has obviously coached a ton of softball. Among the highlights of her coaching career on the field was the Cougars’ 2012 win under the lights in Salem that qualified them for the regional playoffs despite a 5-17 record. That year was the Cougars’ best in terms of playoff advancement or “the rodeo” as Miano calls it.
With the Cougars leading 2-1, Kaitlin Smith was pitching with one out and two runners on base in the bottom of the seventh.
“I’ll never forget it. The batter hit it up the middle, Kaitlin stuck her glove up, caught it, whipped around, threw it to first, double play, game over, we’re going to regionals. Everybody dove on the pitchers’ mound and made a pile,” Miano said.
Speaking of double plays, this past season the Cougars turned nine double plays, a remarkable total considering previous years.
“We hadn’t had nine double plays in 15 years before that,” Miano said.
The hands-down winner for the off-the-field career highlight, Miano said, was two seasons ago when her entire team showed up in uniform at her grandmother’s funeral in Princeton, WV.
“That was pretty awesome. One of the coaches came up and said, ‘We thought this was a little more important than practice.’ I just started bawling. I just couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t even in my world that they would do that. I was trying to juggle everything and they knew how hard it had been,” Miano said. “That’s when you say to yourself, ‘I’m so glad I coach.’”
Memories of the early days abound for Miano as well, including having to lug everything but the kitchen sink outside of town to Loving Field for both practice and games. Pitching machines, bats, balls, helmets, and all the rest had to go, Pulaski’s version of the Beverly Hillbillies, just to play games.
“It was a lot of work just to play games. But that’s all we knew. We started with nothing. I didn’t even know what size ball we used.”
And indoor practice facilities? Forget about it. The Cougars travelled everywhere from the Dublin Fairgrounds and New River Community College to the old skating rink near what is now the shopping district across from Pulaski Bikes. But for the last eight years the Cougars have practiced indoors in a county-owned warehouse.
“That was horrendous,” Miano said of those early days.
Slowly and surely all that changed. In 2001 the Cougars moved to a rudimentary version of the field they now call home. But the four-year-old team still needed a fence around their field. Enter Miano and her Cougars.
“We had to raise about $17,000 to put the fence up,” Miano said. “And even at that I wouldn’t let them get on the field until we had some sort of dugouts. And those were built in basically one weekend just so we could get the kids on the field.”
And what an assortment of talent those kids were, Miano recalled. Among the best she coached by defensive area were pitchers Ashley Cox, Kaitlin Smith, Brandi Turman, and Courtney Beville; catchers Misty Neel, Kari Dunavant, Jordan Chrisley, and Paige Wigginton; infielders Sara Wright, Kayla and Mandi Crouch, Whitney Grey, Kasey Holcomb, Andria Hill, Jess Mitchell, Amanda Dishon, and Mouse Blevins; and outfielders Kat Williams, Amanda “Cowgirl” Price, Bethany Anderson, Heather Dunavant, Shannon Newman, Carli Brewer, and Kelli Duncan.
As for her coaches, well, who could ever forget them and the job they did to help get new dugouts just a few years ago, Miano said.
“These coaches were loyal to Cougar softball and to me personally. Vernon Crouch was instrumental in getting the program started in 1997 and has been with me through all these years, through all the ups and downs and in-betweens. It’s hard to find someone who will be right by your side for 16 years. Amanda Dishon, Kim Nelson, Josh Hurst, Rodger Davis, Scott Edens, Jennifer Blankenship, Keith Turman, Steve Martin, Natalie Parsons, all of them have contributed significantly to the development of our program and players and I appreciate their time and friendships. I also would like to thank Shannon Brewer for working with our program as an Assistant over the past five years and bringing a new type of hitting to our girls, which made an immediate impact. He has been instrumental in our progression both at the high school and in the community.”
Asked for one word to sum up her coaching career in Pulaski, Miano said, “Fulfilling. I know that’s a very counselor word.”
And speaking of counseling, not to worry, Miano’s “coaching” days aren’t quite over contrary to the ever-present rumor mill. They’ve just switched exclusively to the PCHS guidance department where she’s worked for the last few years.
“I’m still learning there,” Miano said.
Will she go see the Cougars play every now and then?
“Absolutely. I’ll go watch them every time I can. I look forward to that,” Miano said without hesitation. “Maybe they’ll even let me come and play around with them at a practice or something without disrupting everything. I’ve really vested in this team and I think they’re going to do some things they’ve never done before. This team should go to state.”
Would she ever consider returning to the coaching ranks on the diamond down the road?
“Maybe, but that’s too far down the road to think about right now,” she said.