The best coaches find their own coaching style to push their players’ buttons and get the most out of them.
Some are more disciplinary, barking orders with a style of authority in the face that sounds a lot like legendary men’s basketball coach Bob Knight. Others are more of the soft-spoken type, like Wisconsin football’s Paul Chryst, whose cool, even demeanor keeps players comfortable.
Dale Gray created his own style of coaching while coaching the Wisconsin Dells High School softball team, centered on one thing: positivity.
“The positive word was the most important word for all of us,” Gray said of his players and staff.
“What we really worked on with the kids was the idea, and I worked with my other coaches, was what I wanted to coach was for each of us to be positive.”
This encouragement-centered approach has yielded many positive results and impacted countless lives for 33 years and will now leave a lasting legacy following Gray’s recent resignation after just over three decades.
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The magical run dating back to 1990 included 18 winning seasons, five South Central Conference championships, nine regional titles, a pair of WIAA state tournament appearances and the Chiefs’ lone state championship in 1995.
These numbers are all the more remarkable given that Gray, inducted into the Wisconsin Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2019, had no intention of coaching high school softball without the former principal’s prompting. Wisconsin Dells sportsman Tom Collins. Following the resignation of all Chiefs staff after the 1988 season, in November of that year while visiting his wife, Anita, who was working at the school, Gray was approached by Collins to take over. as the new softball coach.
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Gray initially pushed Collins away, but a few months later he was given a contract proclaiming him the new coach and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I was shocked that I was offered the job because I never expected to be at this level in high school. But Tom Collins just said ‘No teacher wants that and I know you can coach,’ Gray said. “He was a good friend of mine and he just said ‘No teacher wants that and I don’t know anybody else.’
“I guess 33 years later nobody else wanted it,” he added with a chuckle.
While coaching at the high school level wasn’t even in Gray’s wildest dreams, he wasn’t a coaching novice having helped at the youth level coach his daughters, Tammy and Ginny.
The slow start is gaining momentum
Things weren’t exactly rosy right away, as the Chiefs went just 6-30 in Gray’s first two seasons. It was after this that Gray’s push for positivity really started to take hold.
Wisconsin Dells slowly turned the corner, posting four straight winning seasons, all 10 games above .500, including a pair of SCC titles and three regional crowns. It wasn’t until 1995 that the program reached new heights, albeit after a shaky start.
The Chiefs opened the season just 1-5 and quickly pulled one of their ranks after the team’s co-captain alongside Dale’s youngest daughter, Ginny, was kicked from the team for having breaks the team rule of missing three practices.
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“I said ‘No, that’s the rule. It doesn’t matter who you are, you set an example for all the other players by not being there,’ he said.
Wisconsin Dells quickly went 7-0 the following week, including a perfect 3-0 day at the Poynette Tournament, beating the Pumas – then the Indians – Hartland Arrowhead and Waukesha North. The Chiefs were barely done as they lost just one game the rest of the season, eventually finishing 19-6 and winning the school’s first, and thus far only, Division 2 state championship. with a 3-2 win over New Richmond.
The Chiefs added another SCC title and regional championship the following spring in 1996 and made a state comeback in 1997. The program’s successes slowed from there – Wisconsin Dells won only two SCC titles and three regional championships in the last 24 years of Gray’s career, with the most recent regional title coming last year – but one thing has never wavered.
At the heart of that 1995 title team, and of all teams after those first two seasons, was Gray’s positive approach.
“That was the most important thing, and we didn’t want the girls to be yelled at if they made a mistake; we wanted to be positive with them and we wanted to make sure we were positive with the parents,” he said.
“As coaches we had to be positive with the refereeing, but the training was the most important thing. That’s the only thing I wanted to start with because I knew we couldn’t teach kids positivity if we weren’t positive as coaches.
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Paying positivity forward
He’s not kidding either.
Current Portage head coach Connie Wampler and Gray’s successor Michelle Skipchak both played four years under Gray and were part of the 1995 state champion Chiefs team. firsthand how courteous Gray was.
“I think we all felt as players that the coach focused on positivity during my playing days and the 16 seasons I spent working under him,” Skipchak said. “I don’t think negativity is in Dale’s nature.”
Wampler added: “I made a mistake once and I remember him yelling at me and saying ‘Get back up. We’ve got more people on the bench. But it happened once. times in the four years that I have known him, he was always there to teach us and keep us in that positive attitude.
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That giving nature is something Wampler has carried with her since taking charge of the Warriors, and what Skipchak continues to do with her as she now takes charge of the Chiefs. But it’s not just this positivity that Gray’s alumni are implementing in their respective coaching projects.
Along with his softness, Wampler said Gray made a habit of getting the best out of all of his players no matter where they were on the diamond.
“He helped us learn positions we had never played before and I feel like that’s something I took from him; it doesn’t matter if you’ve been an infielder all your life, if I need you to play the outfield, we’ll teach you how to play the outfield,” Wampler said. “That’s exactly what Dale did; he put people in positions where they were successful and kept working until they were perfected, honestly.
Meanwhile, Skipchak said she plans to follow Gray’s lead in knowing “the importance of being a class act.”
“Being good people and a good representative of the Wisconsin Dells softball program,” she said.
She will do so with a new squad made up of three other former players who have learned first-hand how helpful being constructive can be. It’s what Gray has made sure to keep during his tenure, and something he knows wouldn’t have been possible without his colleagues and players themselves.
“I want to thank them all because they all signed on and they made the team one team. It’s not about me, it’s about the young women because they’re the ones who have it all. bought and all the other people who coached with me,” he said. “We were a coaching unit as a coaching unit; that’s how it is. It has nothing to do with the make me great; we did it together.
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Follow Sean Davis on Twitter @SDavis_PDR or contact him at 608-745-3512.