Secret to Turners Falls' softball success

MONTAGUE, Mass. -- With an enrollment of less than 400, Turners Falls High School is one of the smallest public schools in Massachusetts.

Yet, for its size, Turners Falls, based just a few short miles from the start of the Mohawk Trail in the Berkshires, has forged an incredible legacy. This school continues to add to its already extensive softball resume. The Indians have made 10 state championship appearances, winning five, including last year's triumph over Joseph Case High School in the Division 3 final.

Only Bishop Fenwick (eight) and Apponequet Regional (six) have laid claim to more titles. Incidentally, both of those schools house larger student enrollments. At Turners Falls, the numbers don't change all that much from year to year in a community of about 8,000.

Despite the low number of students, Turners Falls remains a driving force statewide, year after year. This season, things are no different. The Indians currently sit at 10-1, having clinched another postseason berth and now look to build upon their lasting reputation by trying to add another state crown to their growing trophy case.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to win a state championship", said senior outfielder Jenna Costa, who will attend AIC next year. “After you do it once you want to do it every year.”

The architect behind this juggernaut is Gary Mullins. A quiet, humble man, Mullins is in the midst of his 33rd season with the Indians. He is regarded by his peers and players, both past and present, as one of the best at his trade. Since taking the reins here, Mullins has never had a losing season. Along with the five state titles, Mullins' clubs have also collected 14 district titles. His overall record here is an unprecedented 541-130.

"Gary has brought this program to another level,” said assistant coach Mark Sullivan, who has worked alongside Mullins for the last 19 years. “Winning Western Mass. championships is great, but more importantly, the talk now is what do we need to do to get back to Worcester and win another state championship.”

When you have put up the kind of results Turners Falls has, winning district championships is no longer the standard. This program has earned the right to raise the bar higher.

"At the start of the season the girls are asked to write down their personal goals and their team goals," said Mullins, who is 60. "I also write them a letter at the start of the season and tell them of the program's success and their chance to continue it. I do think that some of the girls aspire to be a state champion but honestly lady luck often determines the last team standing. We do believe we have a chance every year, that it is not just a dream. Right now we are doing OK but we know that in no way are we ready to compete with the top teams in the state. However, that being said, we are working towards that goal."

Mullins says there is no secret behind his coaching success. He views himself as a teacher, strategist and student of the game. He allows his assistant coaches Jackie Mickiewicz, Ed Marvell, Jim Loynd, Mark Ozdarski and Sullivan free reign to lend their teaching styles and opinions.

“We are trying to teach these girls the things to make them a state champion-caliber team every year," Mullins said. "We as coaches know what it takes to get there and that’s how we coach them. If we can make these girls the best players they can be and if that’s enough to win a state title then that's great. I’ve got good people here, which makes it all fun. It’s worth every minute to me. I feel if you have good people around you then good things will happen. If I take credit for anything it’s the good people I have around me and the good kids I get to coach.

“To be honest I think I’ll die before I ever give this up. The ultimate goal is to have fun and I think we are doing our best at that. Working with these kids I truly believe you can still make a positive difference in their lives.”

Since Mullins' arrival here in 1979, the fortunes of this program have changed dramatically. Once regarded as a perennial loser, Turners Falls started to turn the corner in the early 1980s and soon after were making regular trips to the postseason. In 1990, the Indians earned their first trip to the state title game before bowing to Dighton-Rehoboth.

From that point, Turners Falls has grown into a perennial state softball contender. Mullins’ philosophy is to place players in positions where he believes can best be utilized for the good of the team.

"Gary builds the team around his pitcher and catcher and that is how I failed to get the position I'd hope I had been destined to fill -- starting shortstop," said Deb Partridge, who was a key component on that 1990 squad and went on to have a stellar career as a third baseman at Bentley University and is now a member of that school's Hall of Fame. "The trouble was Gary needed a catcher. He told me I had a choice. I could be the starting shortstop on the junior varsity, try out for the tennis or track teams or become his starting catcher on varsity.

“Coach Mullins is a coach who makes you want to improve and play at your best because you want to earn his respect and admiration. I feel very fortunate to have been coached by one of the best. He constantly studies video of his players, breaks down their swings and observes their overall mechanics. I'm a softball umpire now and I don't know too many high school coaches who study the game more than Coach Mullins does. To play softball for him was truly a privilege."

For Mullins, who also coaches the boys’ varsity basketball team here and served as athletic director before stepping down recently, the accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. In 1994 he was inducted into the Massachusetts Softball Coaches Hall of Fame.

“I’ve got good people around me which makes it all fun,” Mullins said. “It’s worth every minute to me. I feel if you have good people around you then good things will happen. If I take credit for anything it’s the good people I have around me and the good kids I get to coach.”

Says Mickiewicz, who played softball just up the road at Mohawk Regional in Shelburne Falls, "I've leaned more in my three years here coaching with Gary than I ever did as a player."

Following that 1990 state final campaign, it would take the Indians another decade before reaching another state final. Beginning in 2000, Turners Falls made three consecutive trips only to come up short each time. But those losses did little to discourage their hopes. In 2004 things finally came to fruition. The Indians began an incredible run by winning back-to-back-to-back state crowns -- two in Division 2 and one in Division 3 -- and going 96-4. Since then, Turners Falls has appeared in three more state finals, picking up two more Division 3 trophies in the process.

“The bar is naturally set higher here than at other schools,” said Ashleigh St. Peter, who played center field for the Indians from 2004-07, winning three state crowns and is now wrapping up a fine career at AIC. “You always want to be that team that makes a difference and sets the bar higher. My freshman year I believe we did that by winning states for the first time. Then we set the bar even higher by going undefeated my sophomore and junior years and nine games into my senior year to win 59 games in a row. I think what makes Turners Falls softball so successful is the tradition it carries.”

Like St. Peter, former pitcher Julie Girard was equally instrumental in the development of the Indians ongoing success. Girard, who also played on those 2004-2007 clubs before taking her talents to Holy Cross, says even more important than the championships were the lessons gained playing for such a bona fide program.

“I learned a lot about hard work, persistence and discipline,” Girard said. “Through playing softball at Turners I was given the opportunity to lead as the team’s pitcher and was really empowered to be strong and forceful. I became a confident, self-assured young woman. It was this amazing environment where expectations were so high that I somehow just had to rise to the occasion.

“Coach Mullins really makes the program what it is. He just has this amazing ability to motivate. I felt very connected to him while I was in high school and still have an immense amount of respect for how he operates. For him, it’s not about winning or losing. He always emphasized having class and being disciplined over wins and losses.”

Among the many attributes this program has prided itself on is developing talent. When players graduate here there is always somebody else waiting in the wings to fill the void. Dani Sullivan, regarded by many as one of the best pitchers in the state during the mid-2000s, left in 2008. Some were left to ponder who would take her spot in the pitcher's circle and keep the tradition alive. The answer came quickly once Emily Mailloux climbed aboard. The heir apparent pitched the Indians to a pair of state semifinal appearances in 2009 and 2010 before winning it all last season.

"It was hard to fill Dani's shoes," said Mailloux, now pitching at Westfield State University. "There was a lot of pressure on me and I felt there was a record I needed to uphold. Last year had to be the most memorable for me. We went undefeated (25-0) and won Western Mass. and the state championship.

“With Turners Falls softball, after the first day of practice, you know what is expected of you. Coach Mullins makes it clear what he wants from you right from the beginning. We work hard every day to make things perfect. We wouldn’t have the titles we have now by not working hard. One thing I felt we had that a lot of other teams didn't was dedication for the game. Coach Mullins has to be the best coach I have ever played for. He needs to be recognized for that because it is us who play but he is the one teaching us."