Jaywalking: Hall worthy

Last modified: 10/30/2013 3:49:01 PM
Softball coaching wasn’t on Paul Bassett’s horizon in 1983.

Back then, Bassett had just begun working at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, where he served as academic dean and taught an English honors course for the 1981-82 school year. In the spring of 1983, he was approached by Headmaster Bob Ray, who was seeking a softball coach and had heard of Bassett’s baseball/softball background. So he reached out in hopes he might have a good candidate on staff.

“I really came to the school with no intention of coaching,” Bassett recalled. “Because the school needed a coach, I took the job.”

Truth was, Bassett had more than a little knowledge of the sport. The 1961 graduate of the now defunct St. Michaels High School in Northampton played baseball at Providence College, serving as the team’s catcher. Later, he played semi-pro baseball and organized softball.

To say Bassett wound up being a “perfect fit” would not be an understatement. After serving as coach for 26 years before retiring from his teaching and coaching duties in 2008, the 69-year-old Bassett was recently honored as part of the inaugural class to go into the Stoneleigh-Burnham Athletics Hall of Fame.

The SBS Hall of Fame was the brainchild of athletic director Jeff Conlon, who created a Hall of Fame at the Watkinson School in Hartford prior to coming to SBS two years ago. Conlon said the reason he wanted to create the Hall of Fame was not only to honor former athletes, but to show current and prospective students a strong sporting tradition at the school.

“We’re in a position now where we are trying to rebuild our athletic program,” Conlon explained. “One way to do that is for players to take a look at the past.”

The first class included three inductees, including Bassett. Victoria Askerberg was a 1969 graduate who went on to play golf at the University of Georgia. In speaking with both Bassett and Conlon about Askerberg, what made her so extraordinary is that she was part of the 1974 Georgia team that first allowed women to play at Augusta National, and she was part of the Senate hearings that led to the creation of Title IX. Bassett acknowledged that the greatest honor of being inducted was to be mentioned with the likes of Askerberg.

“It was a real honor because of the people that I was honored with,” he said. “All of the girls that played for me benefitted from what (Askerberg) did.”

Fittingly, along with Bassett, the third inductee was the 2000 softball team that won the only New England championship in the school’s history.

When Bassett took over the team in 1983, he inherited a squad that had never enjoyed the type of success it would see under the guidance of Bassett. But to say that it was clear from the beginning that Bassett would wind up having as much success as he did, would be a stretch. Bassett said his foray into coaching girls was entirely different than any of his previous coaching experiences.

“It was a bit of a culture shock for me,” he explained. “Prior to that job, all of my coaching experience was with men and boys. I was used to pitting players against each other to raise the level of play. That doesn’t work with girls. But I adjusted.”

It didn’t take long for Bassett to a make his mark on the softball program. He had the first of three undefeated seasons Stoneleigh season during his third year, 1985. That season he had a pitcher by the name of Kelly Thompkins, formerly a Turners Falls High School hurler under the tutelage of Gary Mullins. A post-grad year at Stoneleigh-Burnham, Thompkins went on to play at Springfield College and now serves as a successful Brattleboro High School coach.

That 1985 team went on to win the Western New England championship, one of Bassett’s five Western New England titles. His next championship team came in 1988, when daughter Taffy was the pitcher on a 14-0 club.

Bassett also won 10 league titles at the school, guiding the team to three additional Western New England finals. In 2000, he finished as runner-up in the Western New England tournament but the school earned the No. 1 seed in the New England tournament, which it won, the first and only time the school earned that distinction. The New England tournament no longer exists because it stretched the season too long, and with graduations and the like, Bassett said there just wasn’t enough time to make it work.

The trail of talented athletes to play under Bassett would easily fill this space. The school’s website does a nice job of tracking all its former athletes who went on to succeed in athletics after leaving SBS. That list was made possible, Bassett said, because of an early, successful emphasis on building a winning program.

“I think we set the bar high and it grew,” he explained. “People wanted to be a part of that winning culture.”

When Bassett hung up his whistle following the 2008 season, he did so with a 270-60 record — an astounding .818 winning percentage. He is also the longest-tenured coach in the school’s history. His decision to leave the team was a simple one, coinciding with the year that he retired from teaching. He remains at the school — teaching a rhetoric class for sophomores and coaching the debate team — and will forever live on as a Hall of Famer.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com.

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