Gardiner senior shortstop Jayne Chase catches a popup to record the final out of the 1980 Class A state title game against Bonny Eagle. Submitted photo

 

Editor’s note: This is the 10th installment of our new series, “Remember When,” in which we revisit some of the memorable games, events, streaks and runs in high school spring sports we’ve covered over the last few decades.

GARDINER — Jayne Chase had no intention of playing softball in her senior season at Gardiner Area High School. She was still recovering from a broken heart.

“I was also on the girls basketball team that made it to the Eastern Maine championship for the second straight year that winter and lost that game. I always thought we were going to possibly win a state championship,” Chase recalled. “I was on the fence about playing softball. I was really down about losing in basketball.

“I was talked into playing, and it was probably one of the best decisions I made in my entire high school career.”

When Chase, playing shortstop, recorded the final out of the 1980 Class A state championship softball game, it brought the program its first (and only) title. One of only two seniors on the team, Chase parlayed basketball’s bitter disappointment into a senior spring season that four decades later still resonates.

Led by a pitching tandem that included a sophomore in the circle for the biggest game of the season, a couple of sisters from the Washington, D.C. area and a legendary football coach, Gardiner’s 1980 team came out of nowhere.

The Tigers beat Bonny Eagle 3-2 for the championship.

“It’s really hard to put into words what it meant because it was so long ago, but looking back there’s just so many fond memories,” said Chase, who is now an adapted physical education specialist in Weston, Virginia. “We had a group of girls that were highly intelligent girls, played together in other sports and were excellent athletes, and had really good success.

“But the real key that season was the caliber of expertise that John Wolfgram brought to the group.”

Yes, it was THAT John Wolfgram.

When running through Wolfgram’s resume, it’s often noted that he won 10 state championships while coaching football at Madison, Gardiner and Cheverus high schools. Three of those titles came at Gardiner, in 1979, 1981 and 1985.

Sandwiched in between his first two championships in Tiger Town, is the 11th state title Wolfgram won that nobody seems to mention. He coached softball for just two years during his entire career — leading Gardiner to its championship in 1980.

That was his first year coaching softball.

In this old newspaper clipping, Gardiner junior catcher Micki (Meggison) James makes contact from a game in the 1980 season. Submitted photo

“Gardiner was competitive in all girls sports, and we had a really good group of talented girls, committed to do fundamentally sound things and play aggressive softball,” Wolfgram, now 72, recalled. “I had a baseball background, and I just carried that over. I tried to do a lot of things that the baseball team did — hit and run, stealing, bunting. A lot of those things had baseball orientation.

“The one thing I remember I did have to learn were the pitching concepts.”

The coach applied that aggressive game — ‘small ball’ as it’s constantly referred to these days — long before the modern softball game evolved into what it is today. Now everybody does it. In those days, it took teams by surprise.

If Wolfgram thought it was a challenge to learn softball, the real learning curve was handed over to the players themselves.

That 1980 season was the first time Gardiner’s softball team played on the field now used on the school campus (previously, they’d played locally at the Gardiner Sportsman’s Club). It was the first time they’d been coached by someone who had never before coached a girls’ sport. And it was also the first time they’d been handed a preseason playbook they were expected to memorize.

“It was a whole different world,” said Sandy Fish, the team’s third baseman whose maiden name is Palmer. “It was challenging, but I also thought it was pretty rewarding. I actually liked the discipline — I think a lot of the girls did.”

Gardiner lost only two games in 1980 while going a combined 16-2, having played a total of eight one-run games that spring — including three of four in the playoffs. They needed a one-run win over Skowhegan in the final game of the regular season just to qualify for the postseason.

Sophomore Dawn McLaughlin tossed a complete-game six-hitter against Bonny Eagle in the championship, helped in large part by catcher Micki James’ two-run triple in the fifth inning and two running caches from center fielder Kelly Jones.

Ironically, after finishing second in their Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference division the year before, nobody really thought of the Tigers as a state championship threat.

Least of all, the girls on the team.

In this newspaper clipping, sophomore pitcher Dawn McLaughlin delivers a pitch during the 1980 season Submitted photo

“People used to think of us — and my dad would say it, too — that we were like the raggedy nine out there,” Chase said. “We were just out there loosey-goosey all the time. From early April until early June that season, the transformation we went through as athletes and young women was really amazing.”

“I don’t think I thought about winning,” admitted Cheryl Luken, Sandy’s younger sister, and the starting second baseman as a sophomore. “We always just thought of it as, ‘We have to do this game.’ Then, it’s ‘We have to do this game.’ You didn’t keep track of the whole tournament process or spend time looking at the end plan. I don’t even remember hearing about other teams.

“We just focused on what we could do. We just reviewed and reviewed and reviewed all these different situations.”

On the trip north to Caribou for a playoff game during the title run — for a game that was played in the middle of snow flurries, a wild deviation from the norm for the Palmer sisters who grew up in the warm-weather sunshine of Maryland — the team’s bus broke down. In the days before cell phones and fingertip technology, the Tigers were worried about not arriving in time and having to forfeit.

Wolfgram divided the team into cars being driven by parents following the bus. And he made sure his starting lineup was in the first wave of cars to ship out.

“ ‘Always have to plan ahead. What am I going to do next?’ were things John Wolfgram always said,” Fish recalled. “That applies to a lot of things in life. The thing about him was that he was never rattled. He never showed it. That was kind of nice, because he always had you feeling like you were going to come up with a play.”

Gardiner came up with enough plays in that spring to claim the program’s first and only softball state championship.

And the player who secured the final out? That was Jayne Chase — the same shortstop who wasn’t sure just three months earlier if she was even going to play.

Like Chase, like the unlikely stars, like Wolfgram himself — the Tigers convened out of nowhere and took Maine’s softball scene by storm.

“I’m still so happy that Jayne was the one who caught that final out. She deserved it,” Luken said. “She was a leader on that team. We all looked up to her. It just seemed so appropriate that she would have it.”

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