As a light rain fell, Jim Gonder sat in the visitors dugout at the P-O Softball Complex and rolled back the years.
Games, faces, names all came to mind as he reflected on the 599 victories that preceded Thursday’s milestone 4-1 win over arch-rival Bald Eagle Area. There were literally too many to mention.
But they all played a part in wins just like No. 600, where outstanding pitching, solid defense and timely hitting made the difference.
“Obviously this is special,” he said, pausing to accept congratulations from BEA coach Don Lucas, a long-time friend and rival. “It’s really nice to sit back and watch this team interact. I’m proud that they are a team. They’ve really jelled. They like each other, hang out with each other.”
They hung together Thursday as BEA kept the game close against P-O freshman starter Kam Harris.
But the Lady Mounties gave her a run to work with in the first inning against BEA freshman starter Zoe Surovec. Maggie Peck got aboard on an error to lead off the P-O half of the inning, stole second, took third on a sacrifice bunt and scored on Haylee Hayward’s sacrifice fly to center.
BEA left runners in scoring position in the second, third and fourth innings before Harris homered to dead center to help herself in the fourth.
The Lady Eagles drew within a run in the sixth on Olivia Andrews’ solo homer to center, but P-O answered in the bottom of the inning when Kylie Thal reached on an error and Hayward homered to center for the game’s final runs. Interestingly enough, the mothers of Thal and Hayward played on Gonder’s first P-O team in 1983.
“Who else would you want up there in that situation but Haylee?’’ Gonder asked rhetorically.
“If any coach deserves 600 wins it’s Coach Gonder,” Hayward said. “He puts everything into it for us. The last four years have been such a great experience for me. His motto is to get better every day. And it’s nice that his 600th win came in such a big game. I couldn’t be prouder.”
Harris had seven strikeouts and allowed four hits and walked none while Surovec allowed four hits, four runs and struck out three while walking one.
“I can’t remember a time when you had two freshman pitchers facing each other in a big game,” said Gonder, who said he couldn’t recall his first victory. “I thought they both pitched well and for this early in the season I thought both teams played extremely well.
“If we play each other 10 times it would probably be five and five. They remind me of our team with solid pitching, catching, defense and key hitters.’’
The difference was P-O got timely hits while BEA struggled in the clutch.
“We talked to them about that,” Lucas said. “With a hit here or there the complexion of this game would have changed. When you play a team like P-O you have to come out hitting on all cylinders. We did that for six innings.
“This was a great game, especially for the 31st of March. Until that home run (by Hayward), it was 2-1. But that ball got up in the wind and it was gone.”
Lucas, who had been in the opposite dugout from Gonder many times over years, was glad for his friend’s achievement even if it came at his team’s expense.
“What’s great is that he’s one of the best softball friends I have,” Lucas said. “Six hundred wins — that’s impressive. But hey, if you stay around long enough, you’ll get there.’’
Gonder has stayed long enough, for sure, coaching in 735 games since 1983. And some of the things he recalls from those early years are head-scratchers.
“There were grass infields, no fences, or parts of a fence, wooden bats, white balls, kids playing in gym shorts,” he said. “And there were no individual bats. The team had all of the bats and the kids would just grab one out of the bag.
“But I’m fortunate to live in a community that is so supportive and likes softball. I can’t do much besides go out and work hard every day. And I’ve been so fortunate to have great assistant coaches. There must have been 35 of them, too many to name for fear of missing someone.”
Among the 600 wins there have been some that shine brighter than the others and Gonder had no trouble recalling them.
“Well, there were the two state championships (2007, 2011),” he said. “In the first one my two daughters were playing. That was pretty special. We brought home three gold medals that day. And I remember (shortstop) McKenzie Wilson’s over-the-shoulder catch to end the second one. I can’t forget that.
“There was also the first time we beat a Barry Rossman-coached State College team. That was a breakthrough win for us because State College was so strong back in the ‘80s. I coached against a lot of good coaches in the county — Rossman, Curt Heverly (BEA), Dave Breon (BEA), Lucas (Penns Valley, BEA). We made each other stronger.’’
But in the end it’s the players who have endured his tough practices and demanding standards, who shine through the fog of time.
“We’ve had a lot of good student-athletes,” he said. “Kids who have gone on and done great things with their lives. That’s what I’m proudest of. I’ve probably been invited to 100 weddings over the years and I don’t miss one. They were there for me so I’ve made sure I’ve been there for them. They don’t invite you to something like if you’re not a part of their lives.”
And 600 wins along the way.