John’s Journal: Winona Cotter’s Bowlin Joins Softball’s 800 Club
Season Ends With Veteran Coach Tied For Most Career Wins
Posted: Tuesday, May 23, 2023 - 2:47 PM
As a young man, Pat Bowlin knew he wanted to become a coach. Growing up in St. Paul, where he graduated from Harding High School in 1978, baseball was his game. As a 19-year-old he was coaching a VFW baseball team. He took over an American Legion baseball program at 21. He foresaw a career coaching the game he loved.
It’s odd isn’t it, how life has other plans?
Today, Bowlin is 63 years old and one of the most highly decorated coaches in two sports. He coached a third sport for a time … and baseball is not one of the three.
He has made history as the longtime softball coach at Winona Cotter. When the Ramblers' season ended with two losses Thursday in the Class 2A Section 1 playoffs, their season ended with Bowlin sharing the all-time career record for softball coaching victories. His 802 wins equal the record set by Bob Mertz, who retired at New Ulm Cathedral in 2018. (The national high school record for career wins is 1,182 by Diane Laffey of Michigan.)
Bowlin's next opportunity to record victory No. 803 will come next season. That will be his 39th year as a softball coach, and he has no plans to step down.
“I’m having as much fun as ever,” he said. “We have kids and no one lives in town anymore, I don’t hunt or fish and my only guilty pleasure is golf. I really enjoy coaching and always have. I don’t see myself retiring any time soon.”
After graduating from the University of St. Thomas he spent eight years teaching and coaching at St. Bernard’s in St. Paul before moving to Winona. Bowlin is the Ramblers’ longtime girls basketball coach, as well. His 674 career basketball victories rank sixth all-time in that sport and third among active coaches.
He was inducted in the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Minnesota Softball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017.
Oh, he also was head coach of the Cotter football team for 10 years. And for a time he hung onto the dream of coaching baseball.
When he left St. Bernard’s and was named athletic director at Cotter in 1991, he asked school president Jim Devine if he could take over as baseball coach, saying his heart was always in baseball. Instead, Devine wanted Bowlin to build up the softball program, which had gone winless the year before.
His first team finished 6-11 and as he said, “We started rolling pretty good.”
At St. Bernards, Bowlin was 24 years old when he became softball coach. He led the team to four state titles between 1985 and 1990. After he took over at Cotter, the Ramblers won state championships in 2003 and 2006, making 12 total trips to the state softball tournament. They will take a 15-3 record into Tuesday’s game with Caledonia.
Junior pitcher Madison Hazelton, who reached the 500-career-strikeout mark last Friday in the same game in which Bowlin got win No. 800, said the coach is tough.
“He is very tough, and he really believes in everyone and he spends a lot of time working with each athlete individually and trying to make them the best possible person and player they can be,” she said. “He shares a lot about his personal life and I feel like that gives us some really good life stories to take with us on the field and later down the road.”
Ann (Lee) Leahy, who played on Bowlin’s first St. Bernard’s team in 1984 and was a senior on the 1985 state championship squad, later was an assistant coach under Bowlin for two years. She played on the St. Bernard’s basketball team coached by Bowlin prior to his initial softball season.
“I knew of his intensity on the court, and that was cool,” she said. “I was happy to hear he would be coaching softball but I didn’t realize until our first practice that he had not coached softball before. I also thought he was a lot older than me and we are about five years apart.”
From the start of his coaching career, Bowlin made sure that preparation left nothing to chance. Leahy remembers the team practicing in the rain when that was not normal.
“He said, ‘What if we’re playing in the state tournament and it’s raining and we’ve never practiced in the rain?’ ”
Assistant coach Matt Hazelton, who has been on the staff for five years and is Madison’s father, called Bowlin “one of the most caring, passionate people that I've ever met. Everybody looks up to him and respects him so much, and you do everything you can to please him all the time because you want to make him proud of you. He's made me a way better coach just by being around him.”
David Wolvington, who has been one of Bowlin’s assistant coaches since 1998, and Bowlin met when their 12-year-old daughters were playing on a summer team coached by Bowlin. Wolvington had no idea that Bowlin was the head coach at Cotter.
“He was just another dad as far as I could tell,” he said. “He cared very much about everyone on the team and he’s just a tremendous guy in all aspects. He’s incredibly professional and he calls it exactly as it is. He does not pull punches, and he makes sure the kids understand this is the way things are done and we still love you.”
Bowlin and his wife Laurie raised their six kids – five daughters and a son – in a sports-oriented household. He was able to coach his son Patrick in football and his daughters in basketball and softball. Patrick, a former head girls basketball coach at Rogers and Totino-Grace and former head softball coach at Cretin-Derham Hall, is now on the women’s basketball coaching staff at Wisconsin-Green Bay. Bowlin’s daughter Devin is the head girls basketball coach at Maple River and his daughter Lauren coaches volleyball at Rochester Lourdes.
That’s a lot of family and a lot of coaching, and Bowlin credits Laurie for helping him keep everything in perspective.
“When I was the head coach of three sports, I think our kids were like from 3 to 16 years old and as you can imagine it was chaos,” he said. “And I said to Laurie, ‘Is it time for me to give up one of them?’ And she didn't take long to answer. She just said, ‘You know, this is a big part of who we are as a family. Our kids love the fact that you coach.’ I often would take my kids on the bus, they would come to practice. So it really was kind of part of who we were.
“I'm grateful to Laurie for that support, and she's been there the whole time with me in this journey.”
Asked about winning 800 games, Bowlin is happy to share that mark with everyone who has been part of his success all these years.
“It feels good,” he said. “Those milestones are a little too much sometimes but as I’ve gotten older I enjoy them more. It’s a chance to reflect and hear from a lot of former players, and the current team gets really excited about it.”
Savy Repinski, a ninth-grade infielder and pitcher, said the coach’s milestone is big, big news, and well-earned.
“He's been coaching for so many years and he just has a lot of knowledge of the game and it's great to have him as a coach. He's very intelligent, he's always teaching us new things about the game and always pushing us to be better.”
Bowlin was a social studies teacher and coach at St. Bernard’s for eight years, followed by 20 years as the A.D. at Cotter. For the last dozen years he has been the elementary principal at Cotter. Like other things in what is indeed a wonderful life, he almost didn’t go into education.
At St. Thomas, he started as an accounting major but the thought of preparing taxes for the rest of his life didn’t seem very attractive, prompting a switch to sociology. At Harding, his alma mater, teachers were being laid off and he didn’t want to get a degree and not be able to find a job. But he bumped into a Harding counselor at Target in St. Paul, and that chat changed things.
“He really encouraged me to follow my heart,” Bowlin said. “I really did want to be a teacher. He said something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘You’re good, you’ll get a job.’ ”
He loves working as an elementary principal, which also didn’t happen exactly to plan.
When he took over as elementary principal, it was supposed to be a one-year arrangement, basically an interim position. But after the year he said, “Hey, I like this. I want to take this on.
“I always tell people the difference is the high school kids walk in with their head down and the little ones come in and give you a hug. It’s whole different atmosphere. And I really have loved elementary education. It's just been a lot of fun.”
The one-time accounting major who dreamed of coaching baseball has done pretty well. Because, yes, life sometimes has other plans.
--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]