The mastermind

  • Turners Falls’ Gary Mullins shakes pitcher Mackenzie Phillips’ hand after Turners beat Hampshire, 2-0, on May 15 at the Bourdeau Complex. FOR THE RECORDER/DAVID HOITT

  • Turners Falls’ Gary Mullins rarely misses a teaching moment, as shown here during the Indians’ WMass quarterfinal win against Pioneer at the Bourdeau Complex on June 5. FOR THE RECORDER/DAVID HOITT

  • Turners Falls’ Gary Mullins congratulates pitcher Mackenzie Phillips after the Indians beat Hoosac Valley to win the WMass Division III title June 11 at Sortino Field in Amherst. FOR THE RECORDER/DAVID HOITT

  • Turners Falls’ Gary Mullins displays his laser-like focus during the Indians’ 2012 WMass semifinal win over Ware at Sortino Field in Amherst.

  • Turners Falls’ Gary Mullins shares a laugh with ESPN Boston high school correspondent John McGuirk after Mullins won his 600th softball game at Hopkins on April 23, 2015. FOR THE RECORDER/DAVID HOITT

  • Turners Falls’ Gary Mullins hits a ball during infield-outfield practice before the Indians’ 2012 WMass semifinal win over Ware at Sortino Field in Amherst. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

  • Turners Falls’ Gary Mullins watches on during the Indians’ WMass semifinal win over Granby at Elms College in 2010. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

  • Turners Falls’ Gary Mullins signals to a player during his 600th softball win at Hopkins on April 23, 2015. FOR THE RECORDER/DAVID HOITT

Recorder Staff
Published: 6/24/2016 11:09:36 PM

TURNERS FALLS — His numbers are staggering, sometimes bordering on surreal — 645 wins, 18 Western Massachusetts championships and eight state titles.

With that kind of resume over 37 years, you’d assume he would be thinking about leaving on top and calling it a career.

But not Gary Mullins — he’s contemplating what his starting lineup will be in 2017.

Dedication, desire and passion continue to drive the 64-year-old Mullins, despite everything he’s accomplished in his legendary Hall-of-Fame career. And the mastermind behind the Turners Falls High School softball dynasty works even harder now than he did when he first took over in 1980.

As for his records and milestones, 2016 was filled with them. Consider:

• Mullins became the third coach in WMass history to reach 1,000 victories after the Indians beat Mount Everett Regional School in the Western Mass. semifinals (Frontier Regional School’s Vi Goodnow and Mohawk Trail Regional High School’s Joe Chadwick are the others in that exclusive club);

• Two games before that, he coached his 1,700th varsity game, second-best in state history behind only Leominster High School’s Emile Johnson (1,786);

• He broke the all-time Franklin County record for wins in a single sport (634) on May 16, surpassing Goodnow’s 633 in girls’ basketball;

• Just 10 days later, he won No. 640 to pass Chicopee Comprehensive High School’s Dan Dulchinos for most wins in a single sport in WMass history;

• One week ago, the Indians tied Bishop Fenwick High School of Peabody for most state softball titles in Massachusetts.

It’s almost impossible to believe that Mullins was inducted into the Mass. Softball Coaches Hall of Fame nearly a decade before winning his first state title in 2004. Since then, his teams have been nearly unstoppable.

Mullins’ 645 softball wins are a state record, one which may never be broken. He is also one of the winningest coaches — if not the winningest — in New England.

But success never comes easy, and the man who came from such humble beginnings has had to prove himself pretty much from his childhood.

Early pressure

Mullins had pressure from the time he was born — his given name is Charles Gehringer Mullins, after Detroit Tigers Hall-of-Fame second baseman Charles Gehringer. He’s the third of four children, along with older siblings James Jr., Cindy (West) and younger brother Thomas.

Mullins grew up in Hatfield and was a three-sport athlete at Smith Academy, from where he graduated in 1970. He attended Central Connecticut State in New Britain, Conn., where he played four years of soccer and graduated in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in Health and Physical Education K-12.

In his junior year, Mullins married high school sweetheart Joan Elizabeth Donnis. It wasn’t a surprise — he proposed to Joanie when he was in third grade, and she said yes (“That’s a true story,” Mullins said).

His coaching influences

Before he was hired at Turners, Mullins was exposed to two of his biggest coaching influences — Jack Zabek and Tom Valiton. Mullins coached middle school and freshman boys’ basketball for a year apiece, and junior varsity for three seasons under Zabek. He also coach JV baseball under Valiton for three years, including the Redskins’ state championship season of 1978.

“Tom had an incredible passion for the game; I loved being part of any of his conversations,” said Mullins. “Jack is one of the best Xs-and-Os coaches I have met. He sees the game better than most and was a very successful rival of ours in softball.”

Another major influence is longtime friend and Hall-of-Fame baseball coach Tom Suchanek — who reached 600 career wins this spring at Greenfield High School.

Mullins also credits fellow former Turners athletic directors Paul Cournoyer and the late Eddie Bourdeau for playing a pivotal role in his development.

“Mr. B. was very much like my dad and he kept his eye on me as a young coach,” recalled Mullins. “Paul and I talked about all kinds of coaching situations and dealing with our players.”

Of course, Mullins said his father — who coached youth basketball and baseball for 20 years in Hatfield — was his biggest coaching influence.

“He taught me dedication and humility — he hated showboats — and we created a Unsung Hero Award at Smith Academy in his name,” said Mullins. “It is a large part of my beliefs to this day; I want my players to play hard but fair. Winning and losing with class is something I take very seriously.”

A new identity

A year after Mullins was hired to teach at Turners, the varsity softball position opened up when Mike Balcom left after one season. Mullins applied for and got the job, becoming the fifth coach in the program’s not-so-proud history.

Cournoyer knew Mullins was the right choice.

“We would spend time discussing different philosophies we believed were important to a program,” recalled Cournoyer. “Gary has always cared about the student-athletes who played for him. I also knew he would give 100 percent to any program he was involved in.”

Mullins arrived during an era when girls’ sports were an afterthought, and the Indians — whose first varsity season was in 1966 — were a horrific 30-156 (.161) in the 14 years prior to his hiring.

He knew Cournoyer and Deb Loomer and were having success coaching basketball and volleybal, respectively, and Turners had a number of female athletes. What he couldn’t figure out was, “why weren’t they successful at softball?”

Confident he could turn things around, Mullins brought in volunteer assistant Fran Togneri and the Indians went 13-5 in his first season, getting to the WMass Division II semifinals. They improved to 16-2 the next year and advanced to the finals, but fell to the Zabek-led Redskins.

His first star

Since Mullins ran his first practice, players have almost exclusively called him Mr. Mullins. One of them was 1984 graduate Kelly (Tompkins) Markol, a four-year varsity player who helped the Indians to a 54-13 record. She went on to play four seasons for Springfield College and became an All-ECAC and All-New England selection. She graduated in 1989.

Markol has spent the past 18 seasons as head softball coach at Brattleboro (Vt.) Union High School. She’s guided the Colonels to three Division I state championship, and won numerous Marble Valley League Coach of the Year honors (“seven or eight; I honestly don’t remember”).

Markol said Mullins was a no-nonsense coach who demanded a lot out of his players, but that it was going to be worth it.

“He was tough; he has expectations for every one of his players,” she said. “I thought he was an elite coach from the moment I started playing for him. He always knew what your strengths and weaknesses were and focused on making you the best player you could be.”

Markol said learning to pitch was rough. Her wildness created so much frustration that she would almost give up, but what Mullins said to her at the end of her junior year stuck with her.

“He said I didn’t want to pitch because I was afraid and I couldn’t handle the pressure,” she said. “He knew that would bother me and it definitely did. I took that as a challenge and worked every day during the summer just to prove him wrong.

“It took me a while to figure out exactly what he was doing and why he’d said that,” she added. “He knew I could handle the pressure, (but) he found a way to get into my head and push me to be the best I could be. I am forever grateful because it opened up a lot of doors for me to be successful.”

Gabby Arzuaga, a junior catcher on this year’s state championship team, called it tough love.

“Everything he’s doing is for the benefit of you,” she said. “He’s trying to push you to get better. He’s not going to give you a cake if you hit a home run, he expects that out of you. It’s just great to play for him and for this team, because there’s so much history and we want to keep that going.”

Arguaza is also a unique part of the Indians’ history — she’s one of eight second-generation players who have donned the blue and white for Mullins, along with Jenna Putala, Aly Murphy, Haley and Morgan Ozdarski, and Emma, Maddy and Eliza Johnson.

His coaching influence

Markol said Mullins played a big role in her decision to become a softball coach because of his passion and love for the game. They usually play every year in Turners’ preseason jamboree, but schedule conflicts have only allowed them to meet once in the regular season, in 2010 (a 4-3 Indians win). She admitted coaching against her mentor isn’t easy.

“It’s a definite challenge,” she said. ” There’s no doubt I wanted to win; as a coach, you’d better be on your ‘A’ game because he is always on his ‘A’ game.”

Markol’s respect for Mullins runs so deep that she’s brought her teams to Turners for hitting lessons, and he’s given her practice drills that she uses to prepare her teams.

She also knows why Mullins has transformed a once fledgling outfit into a Division III powerhouse and one of the state’s most feared programs overall.

“He’s a professor of the game and never stops learning,” said Markol. “He’s always working on different ways to make his teams the best. The mental part of this game is so important and he’s so good with that, and his game management is awesome.

“The girls, school and town have bought into what he has to offer,: she added. “There is no doubt that parents want their kids playing under his leadership. I’ve learned a ton from him.”

Although Mullins admits that basketball has always been his passion, softball is what put Turners on the statewide map and Cournoyer knows the Indians have one of the best around.

“Gary has to be considered the best softball coach in western Mass.,” said Cournoyer. “He is always searching for ways to make him improve as a coach and his teams better. When I wrote (to the Hall of Fame committee) about Gary, that was before all of the state championships. If I believed he was a Hall-of-Fame softball coach then, just think what that letter would look like today.”

The price of loyalty

Mullins knows his loyalty to the program has caused issues over the years, especially in regard to family events. His said his father taught him that you can’t preach dedication without showing dedication.

Mullins has missed three softball games in 37 seasons — two of them were when his children, son Michael and daughter Kristen, graduated from college.

“I have had bad days in the coaching ranks like all of us have who choose to coach, but I have never regretted taking the job,” he said. “Many times family events happened when a game or practice was scheduled. You can’t expect a player to make sacrifices if you don’t, so these situations make it tough on most coaches.

“I’ve missed my share of weddings, family gatherings or other events because I had a game,” he added. “Some coaches call off practice or have someone else cover their games, but I don’t believe in that. My family often came second to the team and it has caused stress at times that was very difficult. Joanie has been incredibly fair during these conflicts but it did strain our relationship at times.”

The other side of Coach

Markol knows there is much more to Mullins than just being a softball coach.

“He genuinely cares about his players both on and off the field. He’s an incredible listener and is always there for them. He wants them to learn that what he teaches them on the field can also be carried into their everyday lives.

“For me, I couldn’t think of calling him anything but Mr. Mullins,” she added. “He has always been there for me, and is someone I’ve looked up to since eighth grade. I still look to him for advice. There is so much respect there. I appreciate everything he has done for me, not just on the softball diamond but in life.”


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