Amid the post-game handshakes following the Fresno State softball team’s series against Boise State, one of the Bulldogs assistants finally made eye contact with one of the Broncos coaches on the field.
And then she started to cry.
Throughout the entire series, Fresno State assistant Denise Rich tried to avoid looking at her son, Andrew Rich, who’s an assistant at Boise State.
She knew she’d just get too emotional if she stared at him too long.
Denise was just so proud.
A son following in a mother’s footsteps.
Her oldest of two children developing a passion for the same sport that Denise fell in love with long ago.
And now, they were coaching against one another.
“It’s just been a weird feeling,” said Denise, a volunteer assistant with Fresno State. “I wasn’t sure how to act around him or when I saw him during the games.
“We’re used to being on the same team.”
A mother’s delight turned into a dilemma in the days leading into Mother’s Day.
If Denise’s Bulldogs won, it meant Andrew’s Broncos had lost. And vice versa.
Someone in the family was bound to lose and feel bad about the outcome afterward.
Added Andrew about the awkwardness during the series: “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Do I say hi? Do I just walk right by and ignore the fact that my mom sometimes is right there?
“But we’re both too competitive to let our family ties get in the way of wanting to win.”
Yes, it certainly was a divided house in the Rich home this weekend.
But family and friends who came out to watch the Mountain West series made choosing their allegiances between the mom and son quite simple.
They wore customized shirts with both the Fresno State and Boise State emblems on the front. Meanwhile, the back of the shirt read: “I’m with Coach Rich.”
That shirt idea came from Denise’s other child, her daughter, Tori, who played softball for Denise a few years ago when they were both at Washington High all while Andrew played baseball for the Panthers.
“The whole family has had fun with this series,” Denise said. “But there was still mixed emotions.”
It certainly was easier on the family when mom and son were on the same team.
Andrew, The Fresno Bee’s 2009 Player of the Year in baseball when he played at Washington, had his mom serve as his unofficial hitting coach back in high school.
The two would go to the batting cage, sometimes super late at night, and she’d help him take swings.
Andrew might’ve gotten into baseball thanks to both his parents’ interest in the game. His father, John, served as his summer league and little league coach for a few years.
But it was Denise who had been taking Andrew to the softball field almost his entire life, exposing him to the game since he was a baby as she coached around the central San Joaquin Valley for 30 years.
Denise’s longest coaching stop occurred just prior to joining the Fresno State staff.
From 2002-2018, Denise was Washington’s head softball coach. And Andrew was her assistant for four of those years.
Together, the mother-and-son tandem led Washington to three winning seasons and a 79-60-1 combined record.
“I learned a lot from my mom,” Andrew said. “A lot about the game and strategies, what it’s like being around and dealing with players.”
And it was during that time together that Andrew realized he wanted to get into the coaching profession himself.
Prior to that stretch, Andrew, and many in his family, thought he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps and become a journalist and sports reporter. John Rich has had quite the career himself, with a long history at The Fresno Bee and currently the newspaper’s Managing Editor.
Andrew did do a few freelance sports assignments for various newspapers and often kept track of high school stats growing up.
He fiddled around with the idea of working in the sports information field, too.
But he still didn’t feel close enough to the action.
He said he wasn’t emotionally invested follows teams as a reporter or sports information assistant like he did when he played or coached.
He wanted to coach.
And specifically, he wanted to coach softball.
“Something just always called me back to the game,” Andrew said. “I just had to be around the winning and losing and the competition.
“I wanted that feeling that you get from a results-oriented business. I wanted to work with players, help them get better as players and as people. Coaching softball made sense to me.”
Denise said she could tell Andrew had gotten the “softball coach bug.”
It’s what has driven Denise for the past three decades coaching around the Valley.
Denise had coached high school softball in the Valley for so long, current Fresno State softball head coach Linda Garza played for her when they were both at Hoover.
Denise’s passion for the game, and skill for at teaching and relating to players eventually led Garza to offering her the volunteer assistant coaching spot last summer.
Andrew, somewhat ironically, held the same position in 2016 when he left Denise’s program at Washington to work under the Bulldogs’ previous head coach Trisha Ford.
“It was a tough, emotional decision because I love those girls so much,” Denise said of leaving Washington.
“But I realized that how can I tell my own children to take advantage of opportunities if I wasn’t willing to do it myself when one came my way.”
Andrew had been encouraging his mom to take the leap with her coaching career.
And when this weekend’s series between Fresno State and Boise State was over and the Bulldogs won all three games, it was Andrew who offered one last piece of advice.
“He told me, ‘Mom, stop crying,’ ” Denise said. “I couldn’t help it. Everything has felt so surreal.
“It was such a special moment.”
Added Andrew: “The experiencing coaching with and now against my mom has been great.
“It was good seeing my family and friends and being back in Fresno. I’m glad we got to spend some time together right before Mother’s Day.”