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SOU reunion an emotional one for Pistole

Jessica Pistole spent as much time Wednesday in San Diego packing as she did unpacking, albeit in different manners.

Hoping to finalize matters while gathering her family’s belongings for a potential return Friday to Ashland and Southern Oregon University, Pistole was a bundle of energy.

Wrapping her mind around leaving the University of San Diego as its softball coach after 10 months for a return engagement with the Raiders, that carried a whirlwind of emotions Pistole, in turn, felt compelled to release.

In the simplest terms, life can be complicated.

“It’s just so hard to communicate all of it in this,” said Pistole, who was rehired Sunday at SOU. “In my excitement to return to Ashland and SOU, I also just really love my team here (in San Diego) and I’m sad that I won’t coach them any longer.”

San Diego was 15-12 this spring when its season was abruptly halted by the coronavirus pandemic. A year prior, Pistole led SOU to its first NAIA national championship en route to NAIA Coach of the Year honors after the Raiders went 52-8 overall and reached the World Series for a third straight year.

Pistole compiled a 219-82 record from 2015-19 at SOU, making her the program’s winningest coach.

“It’s just such a contrast of emotions,” added Pistole. “It’s the right thing and there’s a ton of excitement, but it’s also flat-out hard. I can’t even get around that. It’s just been a wonderful journey to be here and there (in Ashland), and now it’s just a gift to be able to come back.”

There was no unhappiness at SOU when, after five successful seasons, Pistole and her family opted to jump in with both feet on an unexpected opportunity to guide the Division I San Diego program for the 2020 season.

Ten months later there is no unhappiness with the Toreros or the people who have been part of the Pistole family’s journey, it’s just a forced reflection brought on by being quarantined that led them to realize their true fit is in Ashland.

“These last 10 months have been an opportunity for us to learn and grow,” said Pistole, “and we have realized things. I guess it takes a pandemic sometimes to be able to look up and just evaluate stuff.”

Pistole and her husband Bryan had been homeschooling their four children, ages ranging from 7-14, in San Diego as they took time to find the right fit for their home and future schools.

The Toreros had won five of their last six games and appeared to Pistole to have “kind of turned a corner as a team” when two big issues landed at her feet on the same day: the softball season was canceled and only one of the Pistole’s four children had been accepted into the school that they had applied for and felt would work best for all.

“When the season ended and we were forced to step back,” said Pistole, “we just really saw some of the big things that we were trying to make work here just weren’t working. We saw the imbalance of the family side of our lives versus the softball side of our lives and coaching side of our lives, which actually was good.”

Pistole had remained close with her players at SOU as well as the coaches, including interim head coach Mike Mayben, and in contact throughout her time in San Diego.

Conversations mostly revolved around wishing each other well and excitement that each was taking their respective programs to the next level — SOU was ranked No. 1 and 23-3 under Mayben when the season was cut short — until one point during the hiatus when COVID-19 and team talk turned to Mayben inquiring about Pistole’s family.

With all the school issues and what-not fresh on her mind, Pistole couldn’t help but turn to “what do we do” thoughts when her former assistant coach of two years interjected.

“Mike just made it clear that if we were looking to come back,” recalled Pistole of their March chat, “that there’s a job for you here (at SOU). He said you need to know that and I want you to know that I’m 100 percent in support of you and your family and it would be a great thing for the program.”

Pistole didn’t know how to react, beyond being blown away by the gracious nature shown by Mayben and, later, supported by SOU athletic director Matt Sayre and SOU president Dr. Linda Schott.

“It just shows who he is and who their family is,” said Pistole of Mayben’s initial gesture. “He’s just a great coach and a great person. He’s somebody that is a really foundational part of this program and has been since he’s come on staff as an assistant a couple years ago. I’m really excited that he’s absolutely staying on the staff because he’s just an incredible asset.”

Pistole was offered the head coaching job at SOU later in March, prior to the university’s ongoing hiring freeze, but coronavirus-related issues delayed the announcement until Sunday.

“As the days went on and conversations started unfolding and there was an opportunity to come back,” said Pistole, “it really felt like, when does that happen? What a gift for that to still be a place that would welcome us back. I didn’t expect that and I wouldn’t have ever thought that we could go back there, even though we loved it so much because they’ve moved on and all of it.”

“As that became an opportunity that was there,” she added, “it just felt like, man, this is right for us. That is home for us. Those are our people, that’s our community, and we’re excited to be heading back.”

For Pistole, it’s an opportunity to surround herself again with wonderful players she recruited to SOU — some of whom she didn’t get to coach — and return her own family to a community, both in the athletic department and Ashland as a whole, that previously enriched their lives.

“There’s no regrets coming down here (to San Diego), but you also can’t unknow what you know,” said Pistole. “I think when that really became clearer for our family, that was an understanding that is real and we couldn’t ignore. This opportunity is just such a gift and we’re super excited to be back (in Ashland) and on to the next journey.”

“I have missed these women every day,” she added, “as well as the coaches that I got to share the last five years with and everyone in the athletic department and the SOU community. It’s a very special place. That’s family to us.”

That’s not to say the Pistoles didn’t encounter great people and players in San Diego, it’s just all the pieces lined up a little better moving forward in Ashland.

“I have really loved my experience with the people here (in San Diego) and that was a big part of us taking the job,” said Pistole. “San Diego is a beautiful place and honestly the university and all the people that we’ve met down here, especially my players and the incoming players, it has been a great 10 months on that side of things.”

Moving forward at SOU, Pistole inherits a team that was potentially in line for a repeat NAIA title and has the potential to return the entire cast since no eligibility was used up this spring. All seven seniors could potentially return to an already strong Raiders lineup expected for 2021, but no firm decisions have been made as of yet.

“I think that will become a little more clear in the coming weeks,” she said of the senior class decisions. “I think it’s important for them to be able to go through that process individually and really think about what is the best thing for them and their future and where their hearts are at, if they feel like they’re good to move on at this point or if they feel like they have some unfinished business.”

As for the rest of the squad, Pistole said she just hopes to build off the “fantastic job” Mayben and company did in 2020.

“We’re looking to be stronger and better and just a tighter, more loving family each and every day,” she said. “My expectations are that we all just show up and empty our tanks for each other on a daily basis.”

Have a local story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Jessica Pistole, center, returns to Southern Oregon University after guiding the Raiders to the 2019 NAIA national championship.{ } Photo by Al Case