By Brandon Hansen of the Leader/Advertiser
POLSON — To say that Bob Gunderson and Larry Smith are coaching mainstays in Polson would probably be an understatement. The two have a combined half-century of coaching experience between them and plenty of hardware in the trophy case to back it up.
After bringing home state championship seasons in 2010, both were honored by the Montana Coaches Association as Coach of the Year.
The coach of the year awards will be presented during the annual MCA Clinic today in Great Falls.
Gunderson led the girls’ track team to the state championship in his 34th year as coach.
Smith capped off his 23rd year at the helm of the girls’ softball team with a fifth state title.
Both coaches were very appreciative of their teams and said that it was because of them that they were up for the award.
“I’d just like to thank the girls for giving me an opportunity to get a ring,” Smith said. “I got it on behalf of them.”
For Gunderson, it was the seventh state championship team that he was a part of as either an assistant or head coach.
“When you have talented athletes and good assistant coaches you have a pretty good chance for success,” Gunderson said. “It’s not easy to win a team state championship and get the Coach of the Year award, so you need to enjoy it when you get it.”
Gunderson said that the best thing about coaching is the way he’s able to build relationships with the players. He has coached 47 individual state champions and was inducted into the Montana State Hall of Fame in 2000.
“You get to know them a lot better and it’s lifelong,” he said. “I get calls from players on my track team from 30 years ago.”
It was both Smith’s and Gunderson’s fourth coach of the year award.
“I kind of anticipate it when we do really well and my name is thrown into the hat,” Smith said.
He said the team weathered a mid-season lull to come back and win the state championship this year. Smith also won state championships in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2007.
Gunderson won a girl’s track and field state championship in 2008 and boy’s track and field state championships in 1981 and 1996. One of his favorite memories in coaching came in that 1981 season.
“We had to win the long relay to win by one point,” Gunderson said. “The team we had to beat had defeated us badly in districts.”
The Pirates pulled off the win and got to bring home the state trophy.
“It was great to watch,” Gunderson said. “And my worst memory was losing by half a point. That’s why we tell the kids every point counts.”
Smith learned of his coach of the year award when MCA Executive Director Ralph Halverson called him on the phone to give him the news.
“That to me is a true honor when he called me,” Smith said. “He’s 91-years-old. He was upbeat and jovial when he told me.”
The Pirates softball season could probably be defined as more than successful, certainly after Smith’s award.
“This season, you couldn’t have asked for anything better,” he said about the performance of his girls.