GIBSONTON — To the uninformed, it would have been difficult to tell Angela Slater was one win away from history.
As Slater and her Riverview softball team prepared to play district-rival East Bay on Tuesday, she went through the same pregame ritual she has since taking the Brandon job in 1985. Slater had the same rigid, steely stare. The same gravely voice barking orders. The same focused approach to each minute detail.
"She coaches the same way whether she's winning 10-0 or losing 0-10," Riverview principal Bob Heilman said. "She's always the same coach regardless of the situation. Every inning, every pitch."
The game moved briskly, with both pitchers tying up the opposition. It remained scoreless until the fifth, when Riverview broke through for four runs.
With the way both teams were struggling offensively, it surely looked to be enough. But East Bay exploded for six runs in the bottom of the sixth, thanks to some sloppy play and a crucial wild pitch. The Indians led 6-4 and needed just three outs to put the game — and the celebration — away for another night.
"But hey, that's what happens when you have a young team," said Slater, who took over the inaugural Sharks program in 1998.
Maybe her 500th win would have to wait one more game.
Slater has just one senior on this year's roster and the vast majority are freshmen and sophomores. It's a far cry from the dominant teams in the early 2000s that featured Beth DiPietro and won two state titles. But there was Slater in the third base coaching box, donning her customary bright blade-style sunglasses.
Slater is the only coach the program has ever known.
"Coach always tells us when the going gets tough, you have to bow up," catcher Jordan Phillips said.
And did she ever. With two outs in the seventh and a pair of runners on, Phillips channeled her inner Angela Slater. The sophomore got a fastball middle-in and turned on it, sending a towering shot over the right field fence for a 7-6 lead. The Sharks tacked on two more and held in the bottom of the inning, taking a 9-6 win.
Slater was in the 500-win club.
"No, I never imagined this when I started," she said. "I just wanted to compete every day. I love competition."
Slater began her coaching run in 1985, fresh out of college following a successful playing career at South Florida. Her husband, Ron, served as the assistant coach.
He's had the same job ever since.
"She's an inspiration to her players and an inspiration to me," said Ron Slater, her husband for the past 32 years. "Her passion is amazing. I've coached other sports throughout my career and I don't know how she keeps doing it at this level. I really don't."
Since it was a road game, the celebration was rather muted. The team grabbed a banner congratulating Slater. A smattering of parents broke out cameras to take pictures. Heilman joined the group on the field. While the Sharks clapped for their coach, Slater raised her hands and clapped toward them. She gave Ron a hug and kiss, breaking a smile for the first time.
"We found out a week or so ago about (500 wins)," said Phillips, who like most of the team was born about the same time Slater started coaching at Riverview. "We wanted to get this win in this game for her.
"It was important to us. It's an honor being a part of it."
Heilman said there will be a celebration and gifts will be handed out when the Sharks have their Senior Night in early April. By then, Slater will be on her way to 600 wins.
"I still have to get a kid through college so that would be nice," she said. "But ultimately, I'm a teacher out here. My job is to help these girls be successful, and that can be defined in many ways.
"My job is to help them be good students, to be good young ladies and teach them how to dig deep. It's not always about wins."
Except for Tuesday. That night was all about 500.
Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]