Gonder adds to highly successful coaching resume

P-O set for state final

Photo for the Mirror by J.D. Cavrich Jim Gonder has made many lineup changes during his 36 years as coach of the Philipsburg-Osceola softball team.

When the Philipsburg-Osceola softball team steps on Penn State’s Beard Field to take on Holy Redeemer in the PIAA Class 3A state title game at 1:30 p.m. today, coach Jim Gonder will be in a familiar spot.

Gonder’s teams have played in a lot of big games since he took over the program 36 years ago as a 25-year-old. They’ve won state titles in 2007 and 2011, lost in state title games in 2000 and 2010 and played in numerous state playoff games.

Not many probably would have predicted that kind of success when he started coaching.

“I was a new phys. ed. person, and they needed a softball coach, so I volunteered to do it because as a first-year teacher you don’t turn things down,” Gonder said with a laugh after a recent practice. “I had played men’s fast-pitch. I wasn’t any good at it, but I liked to play. A year went by, and I kind of enjoyed it. It kind of got to be a part of my life. I enjoy doing it.”

Fast forward to the present, and Gonder owns an extraordinary career record of 664-146 in his 36 years as P-O’s head coach.

“It means I’ve had a lot of longevity,” Gonder said. “It also means I’ve had a lot of support from my family, a lot of support from my friends, the community, parents. Ultimately, the kids put the work in. I’m here to provide them the best environment so they can achieve their goals.

“Coaching is my entertainment. My wife (Sandy) has always been very supportive. My kids played for me. That made it easy at the time because they were going with dad to practice. I talk to a lot of coaches, and sometimes their spouses aren’t as understanding. But mine has always been understanding.”

Gonder has turned the program into a state power. The Lady Mounties have been to 11 final fours, won 13 District 6 titles, 19 Mountain League titles and have posted 20 or more wins 16 times. P-O is 24-1 heading into today’s game.

How much pride does he take in where the program is?

“I take a lot of pride,” he said. “We’re constantly trying to improve our facility. Our Junior Olympic program has put through a lot of kids who have enjoyed playing softball. The Junior Olympic program is still going strong. I no longer run the program, but the community and the parents have picked up the slack and made my job easier, really.”

“Anybody that wants to play softball in Philipsburg knows Coach Gonder,” senior catcher Kylie Thal said. “Even in JOs, you knew you wanted to play for Coach Gonder. I don’t think (the two state titles) puts a lot of pressure on us, but it makes us feel good that we’re going to play for a guy that knows his stuff.”

Gonder has been coaching so long, he’s coached moms and their daughters.

“I feel old,” Gonder said laughing. “It’s nice. When that happens, it means you’ve been around awhile, but it also means that their parents must have had a good experience or they wouldn’t have let their kids play for me.”

The Lady Mounties won their first state title with an 11-6 victory over Brandywine Heights at Shippensburg, setting a state championship record with 16 hits. They finally reached the mountaintop after falling in the 2000 finals and losing three straight Western Finals from 1993 to 1995 by a combined four runs.

“It was special because my daughters (Mackenzie and Kelsey) were both on the team,” Gonder said. “It was special because of what transpired that previous November.”

What transpired was a heart attack that nearly killed him at the age of 50 on Nov. 11, 2006. With his wife and kids out of town, neighbor Steve Shedlock rushed Gonder to Mount Nittany Medical Center, where doctors used a defibulator to bring him back to life on the fourth attempt.

“It was very scary,” Gonder said. “I was very fortunate that I survived. I wouldn’t say it gave me a new view on life, but it definitely made me appreciate things a little bit more than I did. Tempus fugit, time flies. My dad always used to say that. I know what he means now when he was 62 and I was a kid. Live each day the best you can. Carpe diem.”

The Lady Mounties, who beat Brandywine Heights, 1-0, at Penn State to win their second state championship, will try to seize the day today against Holy Redeemer, which has won state titles in two of the last three years.

“I’m looking forward to it as a challenge,” Gonder said. “Their pitcher is dominating. The first thing I said to them when they walked into the dugout today is ‘Guys, who likes challenges?’ They all like challenges. That’s the fun part of coaching. (Holy Redeemer has) won the last two of three, so I look at that as we’re the underdogs. Let’s go get them.

“It’s a culmination of the seniors living out their dreams, obviously. If you look at our seniors now, as 10th graders, they got to the final eight. As juniors, they got to the final four. As seniors, they got into the championship game.”

The Lady Mounties are coming off of a 15-4 semifinal rout of Southmoreland during a playoff run that’s been filled with close games. The players and coaches probably didn’t get much sleep Wednesday night in anticipation of today’s game.

“I’ve been looking forward to this game for years, probably my whole life,” said Thal, who has had three hits in each of the last three games. “I think we’re all really excited. We want this really bad.”

“I have dreams every single night about winning the state title,” senior third baseman Jayde Burge said. “I dream about just being there in the moment and winning it. I’m thrilled to be where we’re at right now.”

His seniors say they’ve improved a lot over their careers because Gonder is a tough and demanding coach.

“Sometimes he gets me frustrated, but that’s what a good coach should do,” Thal said. “He says he wants to be the pebble in our shoe, and he does that very well. He puts us in some pressure situations to get ready for some games that are going to be like that.”

“He’s the type of coach that you want to be coaching you,” Burge said. “He pushes us to do the best that we can. He is, like Kylie said, a pebble in our shoe. If we do something wrong, he keeps reminding us that we can do it right.”

“I knew he was a tough coach when I was coming into it as a freshman,” senior shortstop Hannah Thompson said. “I knew that his standards were high, and I knew I had to play up to that level.”

Even though he has been coaching a long time, Gonder has adapted to the times. He sends his players motivational texts, and he manages a Mountie Softball Twitter page.

“I try to stay connected with the kids,” Gonder said. “If you’re not in their phone, you’re not in their lives. I had to learn how to do that. If you don’t adapt, you’re not staying current. Every year, my staff and I go to a conference in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where the best college coaches are presenting new ideas. I’m constantly taking those ideas and seeing what I can use at the high school level.”

It’s been three years since he retired as a teacher. Gonder used to live very close to the softball field, but he moved to State College two years ago. A former successful head volleyball coach at P-O, he’s an assistant coach on the State College girls volleyball team.

At 62, Gonder, who coaches from the dugout, is still a bundle of energy, but how much longer will he continue to coach the Lady Mounties before retiring?

“Honestly, it’s year to year,” he said. “Right now, I feel healthy and I enjoy it. The kids are fun to be with. I don’t think I’ve lost touch with the kids. I think I can still understand what they’re going through and put myself in their place. When it comes to I don’t want to make the drive over from State College, then I’m not enjoying it. Before I don’t enjoy it, I’ll get out of it.”