On whatever playing field he may be, it’s safe to say the end of the game likely will result in Jim Gonder finding success and getting hugs from his athletes.
The Philipsburg-Osceola softball coach may be shouting out plays or encouragement from the dugout at a softball diamond, or signaling out a call to a volleyball player about to serve the ball, but he absolutely loves what he’s doing.
“We try to make it fun for the kids,” Gonder said. “That’s why I stick around, I know the kids enjoy it, that’s why the programs are successful.”
Gonder keeps on coaching, and keeps on winning, and at age 62 there’s no end in sight.
The Lady Mounties’ coach is in the midst of his 36th season guiding the program, which is off to an 11-1 record this season. He also just picked up career win No. 650 and has a team loaded with talent this season and contending for a PIAA title.
“I wish he would retire soon,” joked Bellefonte coach Fred Caldwell. “You know when you’re going to coach against him that you’re going to see the best and you better have your best if you want a chance to win.”
Along with his 652-146 career record, he has led the Lady Mounties to a pair of PIAA softball championships, two more appearances in the state finals and another six trips to the state semifinals, the most recent of which was last season. Also among his wins are a dozen District 6 championships and 18 Mountain League crowns.
“He’s done a phenomenal job,” said Bald Eagle Area coach Don Lucas, who has 30-plus seasons of his own, either with the Lady Eagles or at Penns Valley. “He’s created an atmosphere where the girls like to play.”
The girls on his teams also love to play for him, and know he will put them in the best position to have a chance each game, each season.
“He’s in it to win it — that’s what he’s there for,” P-O infielder Rachel Simpson said. “As long as we stick to what we’re doing we should be OK.”
Gonder started teaching middle school health and physical education at P-O at age 23, and soon enough he was coaching, too, with volleyball and softball, encouraging young girls to try sports. Now, many of the students from the early years have their children hitting high school, with their daughters experiencing Gonder’s coaching. He figures he has had at least a few second-generation players on his roster for the past decade.
That leaves him feeling, “Older than I want to feel,” he groaned.
He retired from teaching a few years ago and moved down the hill to State College, but he is still going strong with the Lady Mounties’ softball program.
He led the volleyball program for 17 seasons, then took a break for a few years before returning as an assistant for a short time. He stopped coaching volleyball again, only to be convinced by Chad Weight to join the staff at State College.
No matter the sport, even if it’s a rival, he draws plenty of praise — and the friendships are endless.
“We’re great friends, but two times, three times out of the year we try our best to beat each other’s butt,” Lucas said. “Then after the game we’re right back to where we were before. We’re so competitive.”
The success he has had in both sports — he has helped both the P-O and State College volleyball teams to district titles and deep PIAA runs over the last dozen years — comes from a style that works with the students.
“He has a great rapport with his fellow coaches, his assistant coaches and with the players,” Caldwell said. “He’s extremely knowledgeable about the game. He teaches the players and then he lets them play the game. That’s what’s important — not over-coaching.”
About a decade ago, Tessa Deardorff was on the field at Penns Valley, trying to beat Gonder’s teams. Now she is back as the Lady Rams’ coach and has a new perspective, appreciating him as a colleague and also watching what he does with his teams and hoping to draw a little inspiration.
“Getting to know him in a different way, it’s really cool since I’ve known him for so long,” she said. “He’s just a tough, great guy. I would love to see him coach, see him at a practice and those types of things.”
As much as he loves the coaching, the competition and the kids, it does come at a cost. He has missed out on a lot during the seasons, like a recent weekend fishing trip that conflicted with practices.
However, he said he is at least good for another season for both volleyball and softball, and will evaluate his life again when those seasons end.
“That’s about as far ahead as I am looking,” he said. “It’s not the kids I’m coaching, or the energy, it’s more about what I’ve given up, things I haven’t been able to do, vacations I haven’t taken, things I haven’t done with my friends.”
The two programs at the two schools are quite different. He has different resources, different students and very different competition.
No matter where he is, he loves what he does, and his joy shows on the field and on the court both with Gonder and the girls who compete for him.
“I love it,” Gonder said. “The kids are great. I can’t think of a negative reason why — the parents are very supportive, the community’s very supportive. It’s a good situation to be in.”