Gilman Really Celebrated after this Sectional Final Victory and first-ever trip to the Final Four
I am going to travel back in time a little to begin this story.
I was hired as coach in Gilman in 1993. The program was coming off a run of four new coaches and had very little success. I was hired by Gilman as a social studies teacher and wrestling coach. Come spring, no one had applied for the softball head coaching position so I threw my letter of interest into the administration mailbox. There is more to this part of the story as well but we will skip that for now. Needless to say I was offered the position.
I am going to jump to the 2002 season. We went from being a highly disregarded program to being respected in just a couple years. As a matter of fact, 2002 would take us to our sixth consecutive sectional. Not having made it to the state tournament yet, the pressure was mounting on me and we had a very talented senior group of girls.
As often happens, adversity galvanizes a team. Somewhere still my wife Kathy has our list of adversities which occurred that season. Incidents that occurred varied but included: center fielder was told they were moving right before sectionals, she did not want to go; pitcher developed serious bicep tendonitis; the pitcher’s father was hit with a treetop while sawing wood, breaking his neck and spine (he would recover); one code violation for the starting left fielder,; another code violation for the starting right fielder; 1st sacker with a torn ACL. I can go on but by now you get the point. So, as a team we had to deal with things and manage trauma physically and emotionally.
Our pitcher came to me just before regionals and said "I think it is time I start pitching again, this is our last shot." I asked, “Are you sure?” and she responded “Yep, let's do this.”
We traveled up to Shell Lake to face our first round opponent the Thorp Cardinals from just twenty minutes south of us. Thorp was being coached by “an up and coming coach” you may have heard of, Brad Ceranski. They were playing in the Eastern Cloverbelt and we were in the West. They were coached and prepared as all Coach Ceranski's teams are. We were in a tight game that was broken open with some untimely errors for the Cardinals and we went on to win 6-0 and advance to play Luck in the finals. In those days we played both games on the same day. We were one win away from our program’s first ever trip to not only the state tournament but to Goodman Diamond in Madison. There were no more grass infields for state.
Now, after pitching seven real solid innings in the semifinals, my pitcher’s arm was shaky at best and pretty sore. We iced and worked on her arm between games but what we had serious concerns. Vickie, our number two was solid but not in Melissa's category and we all knew this. I spoke with Melissa and Vickie and asked what they were thinking and feeling. Both said, “we go with Melissa until she can’t go any longer.” I agreed and away we went. We won the coin toss and elected to be the home team, duh right? You see I enjoy being the visitor and putting points up first.
We jumped out to an early 2-0 lead after two innings and were timing their pitcher up pretty well. In the fourth inning we were up 4-0 and on cruise when things started to unravel. Melissa started walking some batters and we gave up three runs. When she came in she said she was having trouble with her control due to the bicep being sore and tight. The score was then 4-3 and we managed to put up two runs in the bottom of the fourth. With the score at 5-4 in the fifth inning, we gave up one and scored one. Melissa was struggling and loading the bases but for every walk she was getting a strikeout. That was keeping us out of serious trouble but one big hit by Luck and we were in trouble as bases were loaded all the time. In the sixth inning we gave up two and trailed for the first time since the regionals began. The score was 6-5 as we came to bat. We managed to load the bases for our number four hitter, Courtney a sophomore, who was hitting .610. She ripped a double to left center fence clearing the bases and putting us up 8-6.
Then it went to the top of the seventh/ Melissa was in the circle ---- perhaps you’ve guessed it, she loads the bases then she gets two strikeouts. So, the bases loaded, there are two outs with their number four and best hitter due up. Melissa calls time and I walk out and the infield pulls in and Melissa tells me she can’t feel her arm. I look at the girls and Vickie, our number two and say, “well do we go to Vickie?” They all look down and at each other and Vickie says, “Melissa has been our pitcher since we were in third grade. We stay with her.” All of the team agreed and we all got ready. We went to a 2-2 count and the batter hit a shot to center. My sophomore center fielder dropped back set up camp (with everyone on the team hollering two hands) made the catch. You see, earlier that year we played Rice Lake coached by Gary Haus (recently inducted into the HOF) and she dropped a lazy fly ball giving them a big inning. The celebration was on. I found my wife, gave her a kiss and a hug, the girls had to tell me to line up and shake hands with Luck. Six years of frustration I guess I just forgot.
Here are a couple of side notes for you: My assistant coach couldn't make it to the game because her daughter was graduating from middle school. Her daughter would ultimately pitch for us in the Final Four in 2006. Her son, who is actually Melissa's brother- in-law, coached with me that day.
Melissa would eventually marry my son. We now have two beautiful granddaughters. P.S. - I set them up on their first date.
We lost the state semi-final, 1-0 to Regis coached by Rick Bush. It was the first year that the WIAA expanded to four divisions.
Publisher’s Note: In a phone conversation the evening Brian sent me this story he told me that his wife Kathy has a list of the 26 obstacles the team had to cope with that season. They have been married for 35 years and have two children, Kelly and Nick and have five grandchildren ages 5-15. I think I should retroactively award him with the Fastpitch Chronicle Coach of the Year Award for 2002.