Resting on a corner of Jeff Sauter’s work desk is the cap he wore 37 years ago while playing Little League baseball.

Each of the dozen small pins covering the cap represents an accomplishment from that unforgettable summer. A district championship here, a regional title there.

Time hasn’t faded the memories for members of the 1980 Center Grove All-Star team, which was within one victory of qualifying for the ultimate showcase — the annual Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

“Every August I think about it,” Sauter said. “As kids we had our names in the paper. When you’re 11 and 12 years old, that’s a big deal.”

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Though Sauter never scooped a ground ball or knelt in the on-deck circle at Howard J. Lamade Stadium, the Greenwood resident relates to the current players in the World Series, regardless of which city, state or country they represent.

As an 11-year-old, he was the backup third baseman and left fielder for the Center Grove team, a collection of local talent that advanced to the championship game of the Central Regional Tournament in Moline, Illinois.

Center Grove’s dream of playing in Williamsport ended with a 7-4 loss to the Grandview National All-Stars, a team from Des Moines, Iowa.

That remains the closest a Johnson County team has come to advancing to the Little League World Series — played every summer since 1947 in Williamsport.

No average Joe

Center Grove rode the pitching of hard-throwing right-hander Joe Pangallo as far as it possibly could.

“Joe was an absolute stud and extremely intimidating,” Sauter said. “He would pitch on the left side of the rubber, drop down full sidearm and throw what seemed like a 140-miles-per-hour fastball.

“There were a lot of good athletes on that team. With the pitching we had, that didn’t hurt.”

Managed by Mike Coombs, Center Grove won the Indiana title by defeating Kokomo Southside and Allisonville by identical 3-0 scores. The team made it to state by winning district at its own McNabb Field and the regional tournament in Jeffersonville.

Coombs and one of his two assistant coaches, Bernie Green, passed away in recent years. The other Center Grove assistant coach, Herb Sauter (Jeff’s father), is now 74 and remembers the experience well.

“Whoever won the (Center Grove) league title would coach the All-Star team, and Mike was the coach of the Brewers. Our team, the Indians, was second and Bernie’s team, the Cardinals, finished in third place,” Herb said. “We all got along good and got along with the kids.

“I still think about it quite a bit. Lots of times I’m asked about that team, and what I remember most is what a good bunch of kids they were. We never had a problem, and those kids worked hard.”

In the rare instance an opposing batter would make significant contact off Pangallo, he was backed by outstanding fielders in catcher David Abrams, third baseman Tom Baker, shortstop Benny Shackleford, second baseman Jeff Coombs and first baseman Brian Planker.

The outfield of, left to right, J.P. Martindale, Tony Conley and Kurt Schier, was every bit as stingy defensively.

Tournament run

Pangallo’s gem in a 6-0 victory against Cambridge (Ohio) catapulted Center Grove into the championship game against the squad from Des Moines. The latter enjoyed a slight home-field advantage, being only a three-hour drive west of Moline.

Planker and Schier pitched against Iowa, which prevailed to qualify for Williamsport. It placed fifth overall there.

The debate continues whether Center Grove should’ve pitched Planker and/or Schier in the semifinal and saved Pangallo for the game against Iowa.

As Jeff Sauter points out, it was a different time.

“Nowadays you would have known how good Ohio was or how good Iowa was because you have the Internet or TV or whatever the case may be,” he said. “We knew nothing. We’d just won state, and the next thing you know we’re playing Ohio.

“We’ve got to win the first one to get to the second one. Iowa ended up being better, and they saved their (No. 1) pitcher. It just didn’t happen.”

Athletic success later

Pangallo stopped playing baseball after his freshman season in 1983, but he went on to score 1,420 points for Center Grove’s boys basketball program. He remains the Trojans’ career scoring leader 31 years after graduating.

Even without Pangallo, the Trojans’ baseball program advanced to the single-class semistate during Jeff Sauter’s junior and senior seasons (1986-87).

Schier eventually spent his springtimes as one of the best players for the Center Grove golf program. He currently runs Kurt Schier Golf Academy out of Southern Dunes Golf Course in Indianapolis, where he is the general manager and director of golf.

Schier’s name immediately reminds Herb Sauter how the 1980 All-Stars collected the final out against Kokomo in the state tournament.

Center Grove led 3-0 and Kokomo was beginning to find a rhythm at the plate. With two out and runners on base, a Kokomo batter smoked what appeared to be a single into right field.

Schier fielded the ball on one hop and proceeded to throw the player out at first base.

“Playing for that team is one of those things in your life you don’t forget,” Schier said. “Heartbreak is probably the best way to describe it because of the way it ended, but the camaraderie you develop and the friendships you make are special.

“It was just a different time. A different era. Everybody on that team had the same thought process, the same goals.”

At a glance

The starting lineup for the 1980 Center Grove All-Stars:

1B;Brian Planker

2B;Jeff Coombs

SS;Benny Shackleford

3B;Tom Baker

C;Gabe Abrams

LF;J.P. Martindale

CF;Tony Conley

RF;Kurt Schier

P;Joe Pangallo

Author photo
Mike Beas is a sports writer for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at mbeas@dailyjournal.net.