On Friday (April 14) afternoon at Brookside Park against Findlay, Ashland University head softball coach Sheilah Gulas will coach her 1,402nd and 1,403rd games in 31 seasons as a collegiate head coach.
There's no telling how many more games there will be in 2017 prior to Gulas' official retirement – the regular season ends on April 28, the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament is May 5-7, and that is followed by potential postseason contests.
But whenever that last game of the season is, it will be a very different last game for Gulas, who began her head-coaching career at Allegheny in 1987.
"The last game is always a tear-jerker, no matter when it is," Gulas said. "You look at those seniors, and you know that they're not coming back. But now, I'm part of that group. I'll be looking at each and every one of those players. I'm going to follow this team, I'm going to love this program, I'm going to bleed purple. I'm going to be there in the stands supporting this group of people, because they are very special to me and they all hold a very special place in my heart.
"And it's going to be hard, but it's been hard. I was in the third-base coaching box at regionals (in 2012) with tears in my eyes when Alyssa Kelley had her last at-bat. This is one of the best hitters that we've had in quite a while, and I had tears in my eyes because of the disappointment of how that season was ending, and knowing that was it for her in an Ashland uniform. It's special."
Gulas announced in February that the 2017 season would be her last as a head coach. Heading into Friday's home GLIAC twinbill, the Eagles are 20-17 overall and 7-5 in the conference, good for a tie for third place along with four other teams.
"It's been really a fun season," said Gulas. "I love working with this team. This team is so young and raw, and it's exciting, some of the things that we're doing with them are things that we haven't really done with an Ashland team in the past.
"There have been a lot of coaches that have come up to me, parents of players, and alumni are getting back, even alumni of other places I have coached. They're finding an opportunity to come out. It's been a real exciting year, and it's been fun. I can't wait to see how it wraps up."
In December, Gulas will be inducted as part of the 2017 class into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame. When she started her head coaching career, however, she wasn't convinced it was something she would end up doing for more than three decades.
"I actually was an Elementary Education major, and when I had the opportunity to go to Allegheny as a full-time coach and also get my master's degree in education, you weren't really thinking long-term at that point," Gulas said. "But then when the head coach left and I had the opportunity to become a head coach, I really liked that better than being in the classroom.
"The thing about my start, when you're at Allegheny and you're at Wittenberg, you're doing everything. During that time, I was an assistant basketball coach, I was an assistant soccer coach, I was an assistant field hockey coach, I was a head soccer coach, so softball was a major part of my job, but I was doing things with other sports and teaching classes."
Gulas averaged more than 30 wins a season at Allegheny from 1987-90, and was starting to see that head coaching could be a career. Then came Wittenberg, where she was the head coach from 1991-96.
"I was kind of young and foolish at that time at Allegheny," she said. "We were winning the regionals every year…we'd get into the championships. I was ready for a change. In Division III, there's always obstacles. I was ready for different challenges, and at Wittenberg, I sure got it.
"I went from coaching a team that was probably one of the top teams in the country to a team that, my first year, our goal was to play seven innings. At Wittenberg, I learned to coach and learned how to win a game. That was an exciting time for me."
After 10 seasons as a collegiate head coach, however, Gulas wasn't sure she was ready to keep going.
"I just wanted a job closer to Cleveland, because that's where (now-husband) George was, and I was trying to get closer to him," she said. "At that point and time, I was ready to walk out of coaching and go into a relationship with him. Then, Karen (Linder) got the job at Kent, which opened up Ashland."
The standard-bearer team for both Gulas' Ashland tenure and the program overall was the 1998 squad which finished 53-6, had a 24-game winning streak and finished the season ranking No. 3 in NCAA Division II. Four players from that team – Sunny Litteral, Tara Ringler, Natalie Pry and Julie Weir – are in the Ashland University Hall of Fame.
"As a coach, every year you dream that this is the year and we're going to make it happen," Gulas said. "That year was just incredible, because we had so many players back, we filled in with some freshmen that came right in and contributed right away, we had some freshmen on the bench that came in and got the job done in the roles that they had, our pitching was outstanding. We had every facet of the game. That team didn't care who they played."
Entering 2017, Gulas was 20-for-20 in the way of winning seasons leading the Eagles, while coaching six AU Hall of Famers, making 12 NCAA Division II postseason appearances and winning five GLIAC championships. She has been named GLIAC Coach of the Year three times (1998, 2009 and 2010).
And she has had a strong cast of assistant coaches along the way, spanning from the beginning with longtime assistant Blake Bach and current Marshall head coach Shonda Stanton to current assistant Shannon Schaub.
"I just really feel blessed by the people that have been part of my career here at Ashland," said Gulas. "They've all made me a better coach."
Ashland softball has had just two head coaches in the last 32 seasons of play – Linder (1986-96) and Gulas (1997-current).
"That's amazing. That says a lot for Ashland, the university and the community," Gulas said. "There's just something about the players that are attracted to Ashland. They're a special group, their parents are a special group and you can't say enough about the AU family and the AU alumni family.
"That's what makes you stay, is the people. That's what makes you want to be here."
And for the last two-plus decades - for Ashland University softball, AU athletics and the campus community at large - the feeling has been mutual.