Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the I-70 Scout.
STRASBURG — Strasburg’s five-time Class 3A softball championship coach and her longtime assistant are going out on top.
The Strasburg School Board Jan. 9 accepted the resignation of Michelle Woodard, the Lady Indians coach for the past 11 years. Woodard has guided her team to the past seven 3A softball championship games, winning five, including the 2018 crown last October.
In a recent interview, Woodard stated that she is not burned out; instead, the decision relates more to personal matters, including her mother’s battle with breast cancer.
“It affected me tremendously, and so I just need to step back and take care of other things right now,” Woodard said.
The softball program will concurrently lose Lonnie Losh, a former head coach of the team who has served as Woodard’s assistant coach for the last eight years.
Family also calls in his case. The last of his grandchildren will be a junior in Loveland next fall, and he wants to see her play volleyball during her last two years of high school.
“I haven’t been able to watch her play volleyball at all,” Losh said, noting that he didn’t see this granddaughter’s older sister play either.
In the meantime, his granddaughters Logan and Rylan Losh were on the Strasburg softball team, thus dividing the attention of he and his wife, Susan, who often attended the games in Loveland without him.
Woodard, who also received the 2018 Coach of the Year award, is not leaving Strasburg High School, where she has worked for 13 years overall.
As athletic director, she looks forward to seeing the school’s other fall contests.
“It gives me an opportunity now to mentor coaches in the fall,” she said. “I haven’t been able to do that for our volleyball coach.”
She will also mentor the new softball coach, Nicole Osentoski, who was recommended for the post by Woodard and hired at the January school board meeting. Osentoski has been an assistant coach with the program for the past three years.
“I’ll be on those sidelines watching quite a bit,” Woodard said.
Although Osentoski has big shoes to fill, the team loses just two seniors — albeit one is the 2018 3A Player of the Year Alexis Rayburn — but returns a group of eight players who will be seniors next year, eight starters and two pitchers.
“There are girls in our JV program that could be starting at other schools in our league. That’s a big part,” Woodard said. “There’s going to be a lot of success for the program.”
Woodard credits her success to talented athletes who bought into the program; a good coaching staff; and the luxury of having two solid pitchers each year.
“A lot of schools don’t, and that makes a big difference,” she said.
Communication and discipline are also key.
“At first they didn’t know how to communicate with me because I’m a pretty tough coach. I have high expectations,” Woodard said. “As the years went on, I didn’t even have to talk about team rules anymore. It just started taking care of itself.
“I think high expectations, (and) helping girls rise to those expectations, are a big part of the program’s success. If you don’t expect a lot out of yourself, how can you expect a lot out of the girls?”
Despite the personal sacrifices, Losh said, he stayed because of Woodard’s leadership.
“The granddaughters are one thing, but the fact is that she was an excellent head coach, she would listen, and we didn’t (always) agree. But out of respect for one another we could talk it out,” he said. “That’s why we were successful. We worked as a unit. Everybody knew she was the head coach. It was really a great experience.
“I’ve seen coaches that have assistant coaches that don’t pay a bit of attention to them, especially at game time. That leads to failure.”
Losh said he hopes to return to coaching youth softball, which occurs in the spring and summer, with girls ages 10-12. “The nice thing is that they think you’re just the smartest thing in the world.”
That Woodard, who grew up in a high-level athletic family from Saskatchewan, Canada, ever became the head softball coach at Strasburg is a bit of a fluke. Softball and volleyball weren’t offered at her high school in Williston, N.D., where her family had migrated with the oil business, so she participated in basketball and track.
Williston State College and the University of South Dakota, where she got her bachelor’s degree, had more offerings, so she played softball and volleyball. She started coaching at age 21 at North Dakota State University. She also has a master’s degree in sports administration from the Univesity of Wisconsin at Lacrosse.
After spending most of her career coaching at the college level, she moved to Colorado to be near her sister, where Woodard took a job managing a health club. When that company asked her to move to Florida, she declined. Again in need of a job, she learned of an opening at Strasburg from a friend who then taught at the elementary school.
Although initially hired to teach only, the school community soon learned of her coaching history and, when the softball position opened, persistent parents persuaded her to take the job — but she did so with specific conditions.
Chief among those terms was the freedom to play her best players, regardless of grade level.
“Playing anyone on the field that I feel will help us win. If that means playing a freshman over a senior, they would need to support that,” Woodard said. “And I did my first year — I played a freshman over a senior.
“I should have asked for a million dollars at that time, too.”
Among her accomplishments, Woodard concludes her 11 years with three Coach of the Year awards; four Lady Indians with Player of the Year awards; undefeated seasons in 2013 and 2015; 11 playoff appearances; and a career record of 214-55.
“She knows the game incredibly well, she’s incredibly organized, she’s a good communicator. All those things rolled up make her one of the best coaches I’ve ever
known,” said high school principal Jeff Rasp. “In all those respects she’ll be greatly missed. I know she’ll miss it too.”
Reflecting on her career, Woodard noted that in her early years she thought she had to be a loud, tough disciplinarian to succeed. But as she matured, she learned to guide her players by setting standards and creating a positive culture.
“It’s also about who they are as people,” Woodard said. “A lot of them have grown to be really successful women in the world.”
Rasp concurs, adding Woodard always emphasized that the girls were students first and athletes second.
“Her record speaks for itself, but it really doesn’t tell the whole story of what she did behind the scenes to help these students go from young adults to adults,” he concluded.