Volcano Eruption Couldn’t Stop Gonzaga

Editor/Collegiate Baseball

SPOKANE, Wash. — It is doubtful if any team in the history of college baseball ended a baseball season with more drama than Gonzaga University in 1980.

Four days before the Bulldogs were scheduled to fly to the West NCAA Regional in Tucson, Ariz. 40 years ago, 9,677-foot Mount St. Helens erupted 230 miles from Spokane, home of Gonzaga University.

That volcanic explosion was as powerful as the largest hydrogen bomb ever tested. Mount St. Helens previously erupted 123 years prior to that. The 1980 blast marked the first of its kind in the contiguous United States in more than 60 years.

The ash from the eruption blew 10 miles straight up, and winds blew it as far east as Montana. In the state of Washington, more than 6,000 miles of roads and highways were buried with a deluge of ash. Spokane was virtually shut down.

No one could drive on the local streets without ash clogging the engines, causing vehicles to chug to a halt. Busses stopped operating. State vehicles were locked up. If one ventured outside, that person had to wear a surgical mask, gas mask or coffee filter to keep ash from entering their lungs.

It was just an entirely unlikely situation for a playoff-bound team and a sudden nightmare.

Gonzaga that year had a superb ball club that posted a 23-4 record in the Northern Pacific Conference. It still is the best conference record by a Bulldog baseball team in history.

What was Head Coach Jim Lawler to do? The second-year head coach made several frantic calls to NCAA headquarters in an effort to move the tournament back because travel conditions were almost impossible.

Unfortunately, the NCAA couldn’t do anything for Gonzaga to help with their unique travel problem. The College World Series was a week later, and there was no provision in the association baseball rules about natural disasters affecting travel. So the former Iowa farm boy went to work.

Two days before Gonzaga was scheduled to arrive in Tucson, Lawler phoned a Washington state senator for emergency permission to drive on the highway in an effort to reach Seattle which had the nearest open airport.

Seattle is about 300 miles from Spokane. When the state senator gave her approval, Lawler quickly arranged for two vans and a station wagon to make the trip. All three vehicles were packed with equipment and human beings.

“All the highways were closed,” said Lawler.

“Even the state vehicles were not allowed on the streets because they would stop operating because of ash-clogged engines. After I made arrangements to drive to Seattle, we decided to embark on the risky drive. We took off at about 2 p.m. on a Tuesday in Spokane. In each vehicle, we had three spare air and oil filters just in case the ones in use clogged with ash.

“Normally the trip to Seattle takes about five hours. But with the blizzard of falling ash, which made driving treacherous, the journey became a 9-hour marathon. All around us, ash kept falling. It looked similar to a dust storm.

“As the ash came through the air ducts of the vans and station wagon, all of the players and coaches could feel the ash particles going into their eyes and causing them to burn. The ash also got into everyone’s lungs and caused a similar burning sensation.

“After hours of exposure to the ash, you could even smell it. Thank goodness we only had to stop once. That was to check all vehicles and change the air filters. If one of the vans or station wagon had stalled, I don’t know what we would have done. We might have had to walk miles and miles for help. But we just had to take the chance. Our kids worked too hard to get where they were.”

When the 9-hour trip from hell finally ended at Seattle’s airport, a thoroughly relieved bunch of players and coaches emerged from the vehicles.

Their flight out of Seattle was the next day. So the entire team relaxed for the first time in five days.Now that the business of travel had been taken care of, the Gonzaga players had one pressing problem.

They had not practiced outside for five days. Incredibly, the Bulldogs beat defending NCAA champion Cal. St. Fullerton not once but twice

Pitching ace Tom Gorman was crucial in those two victories. In the opening game of the West Regional against Fullerton, he limited the hard-hitting Titans to just two runs as Gonzaga won, 3-2.

The game was tied 2-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Mac Gebbers stepped to the plate and delivered a walk-off home run to left centerfield. He was mobbed by teammates as he crossed home plate.

After days without practice and a 9-hour trip to Seattle, it was clear Gonzaga was ready to play.

In three innings of relief against Fullerton in the second meeting, Gorman tossed goose-eggs as Gonzaga beat the Titans in the semi-final game, 10-8 in 11 innings.

Then against the Arizona in the West Regional title game, Gorman gave up two earned runs in six innings before he tired and was taken out against the Wildcats, the eventual national champs that year. Arizona held on to beat Gonzaga, 8-5. In all, Gorman pitched 18 innings in 2 1/2 days while allowing 4 earned runs.

Gonzaga finished with a 39-15 overall record and was ranked 10th in the final Collegiate Baseball final poll of 1980.

Lawler went on to be the head coach of Texas-El Paso. Then he was the Associate Head Coach at Texas A&M, the head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock and recently served as the pitching coach at Pepperdine.

To read more stories such as this, subscribe to Collegiate Baseball by CLICKING HERE. Our June 12, 2020 edition features 50 Amazing College World Series Memories, an in-depth story on our National Player of The Year Nick Gonzales of New Mexico St, our All-American and Freshmen All-American teams, the 31st annual All-Pavlovich Team, plus much more.