LEMARS—America loves an underdog.
It was pretty much impossible to see the Gehlen Catholic High School softball team as anything other than that heading into the regional tournament. While the Jays had put together a fine regular season, they had lost to regional favorite Akron-Westfield twice, to Westwood once and to South O’Brien once. They had beaten MMCRU, but it was a one-run decision.
Gehlen Catholic was Rocky Balboa heading in to face its Ivan Drago, Akron-Westfield, in the regional semifinals. Not only did the Jays deliver the knockout there, they came back right away with another upset of Westwood in the regional final to qualify for the Class 1A state tournament.
For his work in training his team and preparing it for the title, Tony Gunter of Gehlen Catholic has been selected as the 2019 N’West Iowa REVIEW Softball Coach of the Year.
It has been an interesting journey for Gunter, who grew up in Nederland, TX. He played football and traveling team baseball in high school. He was aiming for an NCAA Division I shot, but the offer never came. He attended Lamar University in nearby Beaumont, TX, where he earned a degree in business.
Gunter worked for Coca-Cola and General Mills before deciding he found his work lacking something.
“I just wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing in business,” Gunter said. “It felt like I wasn’t helping anybody.”
By that point Gunter had moved his family to Iowa. He ended up attending night classes hosted by Buena Vista University and getting a degree in education and that was the beginning of his career change.
“I tried coaching and just loved it,” he said.
Gunter was the longtime football coach at Gehlen Catholic and will be coaching at Cherokee in that sport this fall. He also served as the Gehlen Catholic athletic director, worked as a baseball coach, was an assistant basketball coach and whatever else seemed to come up.
“I guess that’s kind of what you do as an athletic director,” he said. “If you can’t find anyone else you fill in.”
He started with the softball program 15 years ago when his oldest daughter, Danielle, was moving into the program. She was a pitcher and graduated in 2009. Gunter’s other daughter, Lisa, played catcher on his only prior state tournament team in 2012.
“I’ve always been a baseball guy,” Gunter said. “Eventually I fell in love with softball and really became a student of the game. I really like taking girls that don’t know a lot about the intricacies of the game and teaching them something new every day. I like showing them why we play a certain defense against a certain team or talking to them about their approach against different types of pitchers. The kids are usually dying to learn. They want to get better.”
Gunter credited Akron-Westfield coach Todd Colt with motivating him to learn more.
“He’s the reason I’m the coach that I am,” Gunter said. “If you want to be able to do anything around here, you have to beat Akron. I credit him for coming up with a new style that no one was playing back then and forcing the rest of us to think about the game in a different manner. You had to adjust to what they were doing if you were going to get by them.”
Gunter saw the raw potential in the Jays before the season began. He knew he had a player capable of throwing haymakers from the most pivotal position with freshman Rylee Schnepf at pitcher.
“I wasn’t sure, then I saw Rylee had what it takes,” Gunter said. “We didn’t hit the ball well early in the season, but that came around some in the second half of the year. We could rely on our defense, for the most part, all season. I started thinking it would just depend on what region we got put in.”
He did not like the draw when it came out.
“There were three or four really good teams in our region,” Gunter said. “Akron of course, and Westwood. South O’Brien is very good. Marcus is very capable of beating us. But what are you going to do? Go to the other region and have to play Newell-Fonda?”
After beating MMCRU 2-1 in the opening round, the big bout with Akron-Westfield loomed. The Jays broke character for the game. A team that had won a lot of close, low-scoring decisions during the season jumped out to a 4-0 lead and eventually outslugged the Westerners 9-5. It was a rare postseason loss for Akron-Westfield. The Westerners had advanced to the regional finals 16 straight seasons and advanced to state 13 times, including the last three summers.
Gunter said the win was a culmination of a lot of time and effort by the Jays.
“I know everyone wants to win, but you also have to put in the work,” he said. “We practiced every morning and usually again in the afternoon before games. We rarely had a day off. No one that I know of complained. They just kept showing up. In fact, I had to tell them not to get there so early every day.”
Maybe just as impressive was how quickly the Jays put that monumental win behind them and prepared for the real fireworks, a regional final game against a Westwood team that had thumped the Jays 12-0 earlier in the year.
Gehlen Catholic won that contest 2-1.
“Credit the girls and the assistant coaches,” Gunter said. “Everyone showed up the next day and just went right back to work. We got focused on Westwood. We didn’t play real well in that one, but we did enough to win.”
The Jays, who ended up with a 21-11 record, lost two games at the state tournament, but that does not dampen the enthusiasm for next year.
“I always tell them the only game I care about is the last one, and they know what that means,” Gunter said. “We need to just keep getting better and better. Next year they’ll have expectations. I will too. This year went very well. I don’t know of any drama at all. It was just a heck of a lot of fun. I really enjoy working with them.”
He said the future of the program depends on the continued commitment of the players.
“Our volleyball program has been strong for a number of years and that’s because they have a feeder program,” Gunter said. “Starting in third grade, just about every girl at least tries volleyball. I’d like to get that with softball. Akron’s been doing it for years. If it happens, great. It’s especially important in developing young pitchers. How good your future looks is always dependent on how many girls want to take on the responsibility of being a softball pitcher.”