Gladstone Coach Smith Built Champions

October 24, 2016

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

ESCANABA — Gerry Smith put his life into helping area youngsters get a foot into the athletic doorway, and in the process touched the lives of so many people.

“Smitty” died Oct. 15 following a lengthy illness.

“God got a great softball coach,” said retired Gladstone athletic director Matt Houle. “He was unique and old school, but his love for kids and the game always showed clearly. He had such a passion for the game of softball and just loved working with kids.”

Smith, 70, worked at Mead Paper Co. for more than 30 years and was IBEW 979’s business agent for 21 years. But he will perhaps be most remembered for his 43 years on softball and baseball fields throughout the area. He spent 11 years as Gladstone High School’s head softball coach, directing the Braves to MHSAA titles in 2004 and 2009. He was 290-77-1, but missed much of the 2008 season because of shoulder surgery. The Braves were 31-10 under interim manager John Malloch, which would give Smith an overall 321-87-1 record.

“He put a lot of trust into people he asked to help him out,” said Ashley Hughes, who succeeded Smith in 2014 and guided the Braves to the MHSAA Division 3 title that year.

Hughes, who joined Smith on the softball staff when she became a teacher at her alma mater in 2009, also pitched for Smith and the Braves before getting a softball scholarship to Lake Superior State University.

She recalled Smith sought her services when she returned to Gladstone. “Hey kiddo, how about helping us out this year,” is how Hughes remembers that conversation.

He then told her, “I’m going to teach you everything I know and in a few years this will all be yours,” Hughes related.

“For me to come as head coach after Smitty, there was so much pressure. I wanted to live up to everything he had provided for this program,” Hughes said. “I didn’t want to disappoint him. He put a lot of faith in me.”

She said Smith also had an impact when she was a player. “He was so in your face in such a positive light. He wanted you to be successful, whether you had never touched a ball or had the ability to go on to play college ball. He was a spit-fire. He was so intense.

“He just exuded passion, at practice, at games. He had so much love for the game. That is something I’ve held onto because I too loved that game. To have someone like Smitty be so passionate and intense helped me become passionate and gave me the drive to be like that.”

Bill Buchmiller and Smith were partners for 40 years and he became godfather to Buchmiller’s children. In addition to guiding the Braves’ high school varsity, they served as American Legion coaches in the early stages of Gladstone’s program, worked together as Little League coaches and were softball teammates.

“He took a program from nothing to two state championships,” said Buchmiller. “He always encouraged the group. He may have broke them down a little bit but he always built them back up. He was a hard guy to get to know, but once you got to know him, he was a great guy.”

Smith used the knowledge he had gleaned from many years as a player and infused that into his players. “He just dwelled on the basics of softball. If you had to play small ball to win, that is what he played,” said Buchmiller.

“He covered all the different bases of softball. He stressed defense. He told (hitting coach) Al Verbrigghe, ‘You give me one run Al and we’ll win the ball game with my defense. Give me a run and we’ll manage somehow.’”

Theresa Shepeck, who joined Smith on the GHS staff in 2003, agreed with that assessment.

“Smitty always thought the short game was the way to go,” she said. “It was about bunting, not the long ball. You get a runner on one, you bunt her to two. You get somebody on three, then you suicide (bunt) her home.”

Shepeck said his players thrived on his various idiosyncrasies, such as finding tourney lodging in rather inexpensive motels and using a wad of cash to pay for the team’s rooms. “The kids just yukked it up,” she said with a laugh.

“He always put the kids first. If somebody made a mistake, it was never their fault; it is my (Smith’s) fault, the coaching staff’s fault. If one of us coaches made a mistake, he took that blame. It was always his fault, his responsibility,” said Shepeck.

The players appreciated how he used them in games and practices. “His philosophy was to put the best nine on the field, period,” she said. “He walked on a lot of toes, he had a lot of hurt feelings (of parents), but I think the kids respected that. Nobody ever doubted how they fit in. He was there to win.

“He was a little man (about 5-foot-6) but had a huge heart. He was all about the kids and the coaching staff. It was an honor to learn from him, to be in his presence, to be a mentor to the kids.”

Hughes agreed, noting “he had a way of figuring out what the team needs are and re-arranging the players (duties). He knew the players’ strengths and was always looking out for the entire team.”

Smith’s career record likely could have included more wins if he didn’t use the season’s first month to shuffle personnel while building for the postseason. It paid off when it counted the most as the Braves reached at least the Quarterfinal level each of his 11 seasons.

“He was definitely not afraid to experiment,” said Hughes. “He knew the rules of the game and he was always looking for more (from his players). He was an aggressive coach, and the girls who love the sport really grasped at that. He utilized every player on his roster.

“He didn’t have to say too much, but you always wanted to answer him and make him proud and prove to him that you can come through.”

Houle summed up Smith’s legacy when he said, “He was the person that put Gladstone High School on the map in high school activities. He will be dearly missed by so many. He touched so many lives.”

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Gladstone High School softball manager Gerry Smith holds the Division 3 championship trophy after the Braves won the 2009 title in Battle Creek. Smith, who also led the Braves to the 2004 crown, died Oct. 15. (Middle) Smith talks with catcher Jordan Kowalski at a practice prior to the 2011 Division 3 Semifinals. (Photos courtesy of Escanaba Daily Press.)

Grass Lake Slugger Turner Writing Name All Over MHSAA Record Book

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

May 7, 2024

Bill and Julia Turner have not only put in a lot of miles on the road, but they’ve also put a lot of miles in on the softball field.

Greater DetroitBefore Olivia Turner was hitting the cover off the ball and becoming Michigan’s career RBI leader for the Grass Lake softball team, Bill and Julia were taking her to the field for batting practice.

“I always wanted to go to the field, and my dad would take me and my mom would shag balls in the outfield,” Olivia said. “They’ve spent countless hours, especially traveling around the country. They’ve been my biggest support system. They are awesome.”

Her Warriors teammates are grateful, too. Last week Turner became Michigan’s all-time leader in runs batted in, surpassing Taylor Light & Life Christian’s Kelly Kennedy, who held the record with 304 RBIs from 1991-94.

“It was crazy to think I beat a 30-year-old record,” Turner said. “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. I’m just super thankful.”

Having her name on the state record book for softball is nothing new to Turner. She barely missed the state mark for RBIs in a season last year when she had 102 and is the state’s all-time career doubles leader already.

Grass Lake head coach Roger Cook said Turner never talks about hitting home runs or driving in runs – just about being a teammate.

“I’m going to tell you, she’s one of the most modest people you’ll ever talk to,” Cook said. “She just talks team, team, team. She always has since I’ve known her. She has never said one thing about a home run or a base hit.”

Turner, who plays third base, has been around the Grass Lake program for a long time. When her sister Madeline was playing for the Warriors before heading off to play at Findlay University in Ohio, Olivia would tag along.

“I just wanted to be at the field, be around softball,” she said.

Turner first picked up the game when she was on an 8-and-under team.

“I fell in love with it,” she said.

Turner will graduate this spring with multiple MHSAA records.She started as a pitcher, but quickly converted to infielder, where she has played with Grass Lake and various travel teams. She also plays volleyball and basketball for Grass Lake, but softball is her sport.

“We’re all one family,” she said. “I love that you get to play with girls that you may not be friends with at school. It shows you who you are. Softball gives you a lot of life lessons – dedication, teamwork, how to work with others.”

She loves to hit, too.

“Every at-bat, even if there is no one on base, I want to get on base,” she said. “I’m always going up to the plate doing it for my team, not for myself. The RBIs are pretty cool. My team gets on base for me. All of the girls are phenomenal.”

Cook said he sometimes gets worried that opponents will just pitch around Turner. But because of who is in the lineup in front of and behind her, he doesn’t have to worry about that.

“We have Rylee Fitzpatrick, Emily Brown, then Olivia,” Cook said. “After Olivia we have (junior) Bree Salts, who has committed to Central Michigan. It’s hard to pitch around her. When we get to some of these big games, teams will have to throw to her.”

Last year’s Division 3 runner-up Ottawa Lake Whiteford has faced Grass Lake multiple times over the past couple of seasons, and coach Matt VanBrandt is plenty familiar with the damage Turner can do.

"You'd better have a plan when you are pitching to her,” VanBrandt said. “She’s a dangerous hitter. She’s someone you need to think about before the game starts.”

Turner hit .714 last season with 30 doubles and those 102 runs batted in. For her career, she’s belted 48 home runs and knocked in 309 runs after Saturday’s tournament. She’s never hit below .535 for a season and is nearing 100 career doubles.

Grass Lake currently is 22-1 and leading the Cascades Conference.

“It’s crazy to think I am actually a senior now,” Turner said. “Now that it is my senior year, I just want to work hard and play for my team. We’ve had great seniors the last couple of years. It’s crazy to think this is my last season.”

Turner will attend Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. She chose Bradley because of its nursing program.

“Academics has always been first for me,” she said. “I fell in love with the campus. It’s not too big or too small. The staff there is great.”

Before taking her swing to college, Grass Lake wants to make a deep tournament run this season. And the more games the Warriors play, the more RBIs Turner is likely to add to her record.

“Olivia has one of the smoothest, most beautiful swings I’ve ever seen,” Cook said. “She’s one of the girls you want up there at bat with the game on the line. She can do it all. If you need a single, she’ll get you a single. If you need a walk-off, she can do that, too.”

Doug DonnellyDoug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Grass Lake’s Olivia Turner focuses on a pitch coming her way. (Middle) Turner will graduate this spring with multiple MHSAA records. (Photos courtesy of Pictures by Marisa and the Grass Lake softball program.)