Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Payson, IL

The Honor System
In Payson, IL - populated by 1,632 hearty Midwesterners - if it is happening, it is happening at the E-Z Stop convenience store. The well patronized establishment is located smack in the middle of the town’s five block long main drag, EZ is the town’s undisputed commercial hub. Here, patrons can buy their daily staples, indulge in social  vices – cigarettes, booze, and even four slots machine in the back corner – buy gas and even sit down for a home cooked meal.  

One of the self-described “loafers” hanging out at the E-Z on a late summer afternoon tells me about the town’s unique produce distribution system, in specific,  the self-service sale of watermelons. I walk the block and a half west and see a wagon bed holding a dozen watermelons of various sizes, each adorned with a written price, 2, 3, or 4 dollars.  On the front of the wagon sits a cash box where buyers dutifully deposit the cost of their purchase. The sign above the wagon announces “TITTSWORTH RAISED MELONS.” 

I arrive as a woman is studying the available stock. She is a nurse at a local hospital and is on her way home after just completing her shift. “Old man Tittsworth fills the wagon each morning during the season,” she tells me. “Tomorrow morning this will be stacked this high with melons,” she gestures raising her hand to chest level. “People use to go out to the farm to buy them but he figured it was easier to bring them into town and it would free him up to get his farm work done. Been doing it this way for years.” Nobody takes advantage of this honor system, I inquire? “Of course not,” she says. I say to her that at least the money box is padlocked to the wagon. “Well, we do have out of towners that go through here,” she informs me. I note the slight irritation in her voice.  I am sure it is a response to this out of towner’s pessimism.

Coaching in any small, one stop light town can be a slippery slope to navigate. Success does not make it any easier. In comes with “the support” in a community that gages its collective worth over the performance of teenagers. The coach played this kid too much, this kid not enough, this kid the coach subbed into the wrong position, or put her in at the most inopportune wrong time. The coach was rude to a member of the board or the president of the Booster Club. They were just offering good advice. The coach is too soft about this and not hardnosed enough about that. The coach should have scheduled this team, shouldn't have scheduled that team. You get the picture: Gene Hackman at the Hoosier’s Barber Shop meeting. The prairie of west central Illinois is dotted with towns like this, where high school sports are embraced as the main social activity and musty gymnasiums are the centers of community life. Payson has had its share of such intense scrutiny. 

What makes a coaching job like Payson Volleyball attractive is the town's tradition and longtime avid support—also makes it one of the most treacherous. At a school like Payson, a coach is entrusted not with a group of unpredictable teenagers, but with an heirloom. It's the town's team. Is this love affair the obsession of a town in a time warp? Perhaps, depending on one’s view of support and over emphasis.

 L to R Cassie Eidson, Riley Epperson,
Lauryn Hinthome and Tori Schieferdecker 
Rita Speckhart spent 30 years coaching in Payson, 17 years as head volleyball coach. Her teams won 385 matches. Her 2009 team finished 4th in the state tournament and for her efforts she was named the state volleyball Coach of the Year. In the summer of 2016, six weeks before the start of the season, the local school board, with a 4-2 vote, fired her.

This type of action is not unusual in small towns. Some will scream “unfair.” A like number will scream “about time.” Often the ones caught in the middle and eventually scarred by the decisions of adults are the student-athletes. I wanted to visit Payson to see how the Lady Indian volleyball team had endured over the past two seasons. It turns out, quite well: 80 wins against four losses and and the school’s first state championship in any sport.

Sometimes, it is wise to give the coach a break, promote longevity. In any high school athletic program, coaching stability and community support will sustain excellence and reinforce good character. Those two goals, the current Indians head coach Teresa Loos-Tenbow says, go hand in hand. “I spent seven years coaching the junior high program here, so I have been here for ten years. I have never worked in the school system, but I am a graduate of Payson High School (Class of 1988) and both of my parents went to school here,” she shares. “These girls know me as I have had the seniors starting with club ball when they were 8 years old and the younger classes when I was the Junior High coach. They know I have high standards. Volleyball is the small window, but life is the big picture.”

 Coach Teresa Loos-Tendrow
When you peel away the ego, there's no such thing as bragging. You're either lying or telling the truth. The Payson, IL girls’ volleyball team was preparing last November to take on the girls from Steelville in a Class 1A state quarterfinal tilt. As the opponents chartered bus, full of fans, unloaded an overflowing gang of high spirited faithful at the front door of Lincolnwood High School, one of Payson’s more avid fans gave some bubble bursting but sage advice. “Leave the bus running,” he informed the driver, “this will not take long.” Thirty five minutes later the rout was mercifully over, Payson the winner, 25-13, 25-10.

Teresa Loos-Tendrow, in her third year at the helm of Payson’s volleyball program, loves that type of confidence. “We have great support and we have a responsibility to live up to that support. We don’t back off the challenge. There is too much entitlement in today’s society. We try to teach them that if you want something really special then you have to work really special hard to get it.”

After knocking off Steelville in the round of 8 last November, the Indians stormed through the state tournament, topping Newark 25-21, 25-12 in the semifinal and Strasburg in the championship match, 25-12, 27-25; to complete a 41-1 season.

The Indians started off the 2018 season last weekend with a tournament in Macomb. They finished the day with a mark of 3-2. I point out to the coach that she had in one day doubled last year’s loss total and that in her first two years the team had lost only four times (to be fair, this type of high standard expectation is like batting 8th for the 1927 Yankees Murderers Row). Is the sky falling I ask? “Not at all,” she says with a laugh. “We played all bigger schools and both losses went to three sets and they were all close.” The coach falls back on her bedrock principle of coaching, consistency. “We are still experimenting. We lost four good seniors from last year. All four are now playing in college, two on the Division 1 level. That is hard for any small school to lose that kind of talent and not have an early season drop in success. We have some seniors back with experience and our junior class is strong. They (the juniors) played little varsity last year, but they were pushed really hard in practice. We are going to be fine.”

 Game action against 
the Western Wildcats
Riley Epperson is a four year varsity starter who has, as an Indian, seen very few losses. “This is going to be a different year, a different team, but we will find ourselves and we know we can repeat,” she says. 

Coach Loos-Tendrow stresses the mental aspect of the game. “We are devoting practice time this year to making the mental aspect of the game a big part of our development," the coach says.  "It is so important. Practice is 90% physical and 10% mental. But games are 10% physical and 90% mental. That is not only true in volleyball but also in life. You have to be mentally tough. You have to have a short memory. Forget about a mistake. Focus on what you can do now.” 

Lauryn Hinthome has seen the value of this year’s focus and stresses patience. “It is a process,” she says. “We are now still learning to play with each other and experiment with different lineups.”

The four seniors have all attended school together since the first day of kindergarten. The Class of 2019’s total class enrollment is less than 40. With such a small number, the student body and players become, for better or worse, parts of each other’s lives. The athletes are not just a representative of the school, they are the school.

“We have all four gone through school with each other,” says Cassie Eidson. “Thirteen years, we have grown up together. I like living here,” she states. “We are leaders and we take the responsibility seriously. The town really supports us and we don’t want to let them down.”

Tori Schieferdecker likes the feeling of toughness she sees now percolating in this team.   “Losing the two matches on Saturday like we did, it shows we need to focus better. As Coach said, ‘If we were good enough physically to beat both of those teams in one set, then we are good enough physically to beat them a second set.’  When we get the metal toughness we need, we will win those types of tough matches.”

Payson is located 15 short miles from the 40,000 populated Mississippi River port city of Quincy, IL. The larger neighbor is viewed by locals as a big bully. A couple of elderly men passing time at the Easy-Z defiantly tell me that Quincy does not dwarf Payson’s town pride. “Will not play us basketball. Been that way for years,” says one in mock disgust. 

The animosity felt towards the bigger neighbor has deep historical roots that predate any claims to hoops superiority. 

In 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War, brother against brother raised its ugly head in  Payson in a violent way. In what became known as the Stone Prairie Riots, a skirmish erupted over the passion raised by the upcoming 1860 presidential election. Democrat was the dominant political party in Payson and supporters of Democrat nominee Stephen Douglass erected a 140-foot pole on the town square, “bearing an unflattering effigy of Lincoln. It depicted him astride a horse with a maul in his hand and wearing pants described in one newspaper account as ‘too short for boots.’”

This was insulting to a group of Lincoln supporters in Quincy. They saw no choice but to come to the defense of  their candidate’s honor. According to local newspaper accounts, approximately 50 well lubricated Quincians made the march into Payson. Those in the front of the parade carried an insulting banner of a caricature of Douglas portraying him as drunk and falling down.

When the outsiders arrived they were confronted by 100 Payson citizens guarding the now hotly contested pole in the town square. The Lincoln partisans attempted to tear down the offending pole and several shots rang out. One of the Quincy raiders was hit twice in the arm. Cooler heads then prevailed and both sides backed away. Payson’s distaste for Lincoln aside, he went on to win the election, seen as a precursor to a civil war that did break out one year later.

 First round action in 
the Lady Suns Classic,
held in Augusta, IL
It is painfully, even in the warmup, evident that this evening’s opponent in the first round of the Southeastern Sun Classic, Western High School, is overmatched. However, the Wildcats are gritty and seem to grow more and more confident as the opening set grinds to an 8-8 tie. During a Payson called timeout, Coach Loos-Tedrow calmly - but intensely - rallies her troops. With six roster spots filled by girls over 5’10’’, she has a bevy of attacking options. After the strategic timeout, things begin to click for the Indians. Six foot Epperson hammers home several blasting kills. The Indians prevail in the first set of a best of three contest, 25-18.

In the second set, 11 straight points served by Epperson turn a 4-4 tie  into a commanding 15-4 lead.   It is s more than a now dispirited Western club can bear and Payson cruises to a 25-12 match clinching set win.

After the game’s completion, Loos-Tendrow admits her team didn’t play up to her expectations. “We looked nervous,” assess the coach. “The game was pretty rough.” But there is no time to pout, the coach points out. “We have to make four trips here this week in five days. Tomorrow night we have a 5:00 match with West Hancock, so we have more chances to figure out where we need to be.”

For a coach who prides herself on keeping an even keel, she will take from this evening’s effort; the good, evaluate the not so good and adjust. Senior Libero Hinthome has bought in to the concept the team needs to get mentally stronger. “In the game we lost our sophomore year,” she relates to a regional final 2016 three set loss to West Prairie, the eventual state champs, “We should have won that match and today we would be looking at three state titles in row. I wish we had started focusing on the mental part of the game back when we were freshman.”

This team is oozing with confidence, of that there is no doubt. Defensive Specialist Hutchinson tells me, “We know the post season is what counts and that is what we focus on every day. We will not be distracted from what matters the most and that is to get better each practice, each game.”

Players point out to me that the lessons they learn in practice carries over into their lives. “I (transfer) what I learn in volleyball,” says Eidson. Her teammate, 5’6 OH Schieferdecker concurs. “I am learning to take things as they come. We stop, we step back and we evaluate. I am doing the same with my future. Where should I go to college? Should I play volleyball in college?  I am going to just let things play out and see where it takes me.”

It is nice, as a coach, to have experienced players who are capable of being coaches on the floor. Coach Loos-Tenbow knows she has a cerebral crew to mentor. She views this as a non-tangible team strength. “They are a solid group,” she says.

Hollywood panders to the clich├ęs of small town life, constantly projecting an aura that just does not exist in reality, that of the quintessential setting for the Great American Dream, the ideal Rockwellian hometown. I hope I have avoided that halcyon induced pitfall. But, indulge me just this once. Today, I must admit, was a welcome respite from reality. As I leave Southeastern High School and depart Augusta, IL, population 600, I drive due west into the setting sun. The locals who know this type of stuff tell me the corn soon to be harvested will be of an abundant crib busting level, those nasty tariffs coming from DC be damned. The land I drive through is flat and bountiful. The wind is non-existent, a pleasurable change from the hot gusts of my late afternoon arrival. Even the incessant summer humidity has taken a break.

Every so often, if you are patient and wait for it to find you, a slice of a simpler lifestyle of long ago  drops into your lap, a timeless reminder of the high quality of small town American life.  That is where I now briefly reside. I know it will not last. Soon, the 24 hour news cycle will again invade my tranquil state, bombarding me with the crazy reality we have come to accept. But this is nice. Let tomorrow bring what it may. Thanks to a day focused on small town volleyball, my world is spinning in greased grooves.