Friday, August 24, 2018

Catoosa, OK

The girls’ volleyball squad at Catoosa OK high school is mentored by the winningest coach in school history, a coach who is quick to point out she also owns the dubious coaching distinction of suffering the most losses, as well.  “I started the program here 20 years ago,” the veteran and lone coach to ever pace the post Title IX Indian sidelines states. Without a doubt, Carolyn Replogle IS Catoosa Indians volleyball. “I will continue to be here until I don’t enjoy it or I am told my services are no longer needed,” she nonchalantly states. With a factual nod that her 20 previous seasons’ have all reached the trail’s end with a winning record, it would seem to be a safe assumption that the low key and unassuming coach will be the one to decide when the time to step down has arrived. 
Year to year is what I commit to now,” she says. “I quit teaching ten years ago but I have stuck with the coaching. But, I have grandkids growing up fast, so you never know.” I know to not waste breath asking for her career won loss record. I was told by a player’s parent it would be a rhetorical question. “Bet you week’s pay she won’t know,” says the parent.
Head Coach Carolyn Replogle

Catoosa is a small town proud of its student athletes and that overwhelming support is paramount, according to Replogle, as to why she is still coaching as she nears her 65th birthday. Her personal heritage is deeply embedded in the school’s long time winning sports teams. Her husband and high school sweetheart, Larry, recently retired (for the second time) from CHS, completing a 40+ year coaching career. Her daughter and son both were standout Indian athletes and both played college basketball. “I graduated from here in 1972,” she says. “We had volleyball back then but nothing like we have today,” alluding to the dawning days of Title IX and equal school athletic opportunities for girls. By the 1980’s volleyball had been dropped from the offerings for CHS girls. “I coached basketball for 25 years and returned home here in 1998 to start back up the girls’ volleyball program.” 

Rumblings of non-compliance with Title IX mandates were starting to seethe within the community. School leadership, by hiring the hometown Replogle, threw its critics a bone of equality- the restart of a volleyball program. History has proved it a wise board decision. “The first year we played Junior High only. The next year we moved up to JV and the third year we went with a varsity team,” Replogle recalls.

With gallons of her own blood and sweat flowing into the program for the last two decades, Reploge has built a program from scratch, literally. “When we started in 98,” she says. “We were given $15,000 for startup expenses. For the next 13 years, except for transportation, we raised every penny of our budget. I have had great parent support over the years. We run a 28 team summer league, I could not have done it alone. This commitment gives our players and  their parents the ability to buy into the program, to have a stake. You will see, when you have been here a while, that there is an inherent pride in our program and it seems to be passed down each year to the younger players from the graduating seniors.”

L to R: Baylee Calico, Desiree Bates, 
Tiffany Maxey, Sara Chalupa,
Kathryne Parrish
Replogle is putting her 30+ roster of players through a late August after school Wednesday practice, a spirited but rare in-season occurrence. “We don’t practice much once we start playing, and in Oklahoma that is the start of August. We are done by the end of September (with the regular season) and state is the first week of October,” she states. “Right now the kids are tired. We play three nights this week and then a big weekend tournament. Right now, rest is as important as practice.”

The next night’s opponent, Corsica Hall of Tulsa, will be a stiff test. “We play a very good schedule,” the coach shares. “It can wear you out, but it can also get you ready for the post-season and that is always our goal. I have eased up some over the years, more patient” she says. “But I have never lowered our behavioral standards, on an off the court and our own court goal is to always to do well at state.” 

The name Catoosa is from the Cherokee language meaning “between two hills.”  In a 40 year period from 1970 to 2010 the city’s population boomed from 970 to 7,159. Locals attributed the growth to three factors. In 1971, the Tulsa Port of Catoosa opened and today provides for 2,600 local jobs. The opening of the waterway port connects the landlocked area through the Arkansas River Navigation System to the Mississippi River and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. Second, due to its location of only 15 miles from the suburban area of Tulsa, the town has attracted a large contingent of commuters and is today demographically viewed as a bedroom suburban community, no longer just a small town outside of the Tulsa metro area. School officials are quick to point out the high ratings of the local school has been a major lure to many young couples in choosing Catoosa as the town to raise their family. The third factor, and the most physically prominent, is the opening of the Hard Rock Casino that lies just to the north of the modern high school campus. “Ten years ago that was all pasture,” a local tells me, gesturing to the large Indian owned gaming facility. Today barns and steers has been replaced by the anchor of the resort, the Toby Keith owned I Love This Bar and Grill.

 The Grave of Blue Duck
An interesting anecdote to the town’s Sooner state’s Wild West  heritage that community leaders have  worked so hard to maintain; Catoosa is the final resting place to Bluford "Blue" Duck, the infamous bad man immortalized in the western classic  Lonesome Dove. He is entombed for eternity in the Dick Duck Cemetery located at the corner of 193 Road and Pine Street. With a couple of hours to kill, I drive to the cemetery on the north edge of town. It takes me over an hour to locate the famous half breed bandit’s grave and it proves to be a disappointment. The simple headstone is both knocked over and broken, a sad legacy for a man who was married to the equally as infamous female outlaw Belle Starr; and the man who once (in the movie, at least) told Texas Ranger Captain Gus McCray, “if I ever catch you north of the Canadian River, I will cut out your tongue and feed it to my wolf pups.”

For American small town high schools, two dynamics of demographic change have emerged over the past 40 years and neither is positive. First, small towns live and die, literally, on the enrollment of their public schools. The local high school serves as the front porch to the community, doubling most every evening as the social community center, hosting ball games, plays, musicals and other events that allow for healthy civic chest puffing.  As student enrollments tumble in many of our rural areas, locals must face a new stark reality, lose your school and you lose your town. When smaller schools are swallowed up through consolidation by their larger neighbors, the viable local economy will soon follow into obliteration, the former noble school house turned into an after-thought antique mall. Or the second dynamic, the town grows through suburban sprawl as the tentacles of a nearby city swallow up the small once quaint rural landscape. Left in the wake of these bulldozers of modernization is just another non-descript impersonal suburb where membership to the local country club now holds  a higher social status than working the chain gang on fall Friday nights.

Catoosa has been an exception. Despite its recent population boom, Catoosa has not lost the warm nurturing feel of a small town community. Spend a day anywhere within the city limits other than the stale climate controlled casino and you will agree. Local leaders give much of the credit for the survival of their small town identity to the successes, both athletic and academic, of the Catoosa students.

“This is a great place to grow up,” says senior volleyball player Desiree Bates. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Sports are big here but they also are kept in perspective,” she says.  “Our parents and coaches see to that.”

Of the five seniors on this year’s squad, four have attended Catoosa schools since kindergarten, 13 years of unbroken bonding. The “outsider” is Kathryne Parrish, who joined her teammates in second grade. Parrish is the only one of the five who could see a possible future move from the area. “I just want to see what is out there and then after college, make decisions.” The other four readily profess their intentions of a lifetime spent as a Catoosa resident. “Everything I need to be happy is here,” says Bates.

 Action vs. Tulsa Corsica Hall
Tiffany Maxey is amazed how the town has grown over the last ten years, but also has maintained its small town warmth and charm. “The Casino has made a big difference,” she says. “But I can’t see where the town has changed. The kids that come in here new just seem to adjust and fit in. I don’t think we ever want to get too big, but for right now, I cannot imagine a better place to grow up.” Sara Chalupa stresses the team chemistry and the support from the school and community. “We all support each other. We all go to the games of the other sports, like football. Football is a big deal around here but the Football boys will come to our home matches and support us. Last year, when we went to state in volleyball, everyone got behind us. I was really special.”

The Indians enter their late August battle with Tulsa Corsica Hall with s mark of 9-9. The private school will be another in a month long with challenges for Replogle’s team. “We need to win our Regional to get to the state, “she says. “I know this group of seniors wants this to be a special season. This type of competition will get us prepared for the post season.”

They say half of life is just showing up every day. This group of seniors takes it a step further. “This is our last year” says Bates, “we want to do the extra, to be a good example for the younger players. We started in 6th grade with club (ball) and for the past six years we have played pretty much year round.” Baylee Calico gives a nod to a team she says has experienced leadership. “Last year we had no seniors on the team. So we have gotten to be leaders for two years. We try really hard to set a good example for the younger players. We are really focused. We know this is it for us.”   

 A Spirited Practice
I am amazed when Johnny Casilla informs me he is 75 years old.  I would have pegged him two decades younger. His secret, I ask? “Dong this,” he says, gesturing around his Spartan gym office, located in the bowels of the Indian’s modern sports arena. “This” is anything and everything the Catoosa Indians need. “I am charge of streaming all of our sports games. Football, basketball, wrestling, baseball; all of them,” he says. “We have regular viewers from North Carolina, Wyoming, Florida, all over the nation. Some are Grandparents; some are graduates who have moved away. We get a lot of military personnel who have a connection to Catoosa. We have had viewers who were sailors on ships in the Mediterranean.”

Casilla also serves as the Indians public address announcer for multiple sports. I get to hear his deep baritone introduction of  both teams involved in this evenings volleyball match; very professional and gives the game atmosphere, even with a small crowd, the feel of a major event. “I started this volunteering here 15 years ago when I retired from my real job and my duties each year seems to expand,” he informs me. In addition to his streaming and announcing gigs, Casilla takes all the team photos and covers the Indians for the town weekly paper.

Hard Working 
Ball Girls
Volunteers are the life line of a successful small town athletic program. “This town is very supportive,” says Casilla, “but don’t kid yourself, the town expects you to win. These kids start really young with community coached teams. Look around at our athletic facilities. You will not find a small town with any better. This was all done with the citizens passing bonds and tax increases. We invest a lot, but don’t sugarcoat it, we expect a return on our investment, we expect to win.”

Coach Replogle gives the Tulsa native a ringing endorsement. “He is great,” she gushes. “He not only does a lot, he does it very well. He has to be up here at school on an average of four nights a week, sometimes like tonight, as we have our football pre-season scrimmage going on as well as volleyball, he is  running back and forth at multiple sites.”

“I really enjoy it,” Casilla states. “I enjoy being around the kids. It keeps me engaged, keeps me feeling young. Each year we lose a good group, they move on, but we always have another good group behind them. I don’t see an end in sight. I feel appreciated by the school, the coaches and the community. That motivates me and makes me want to do the best job possible. That right now is my mission in life.” Consider it accomplished.

A coach who does not have time to soft peddle, Replogle is pragmatic and to the point with her assessment of the Indians performance in the just completed match against Tulsa Corsica Hall. “We looked tired and did not play very well,” she says of her team’s 25-17, 25-19 and 25-18 loss. But, the value of experience is perspective; you don’t shoot the survivors, you regroup. “We will be ok,” she says.

A fairy tale finish with a long run into October’s Oklahoma Class 4 state volleyball tournament would be a great curtain call for the Indians seniors. However, they maturely explain to me at the conclusion of Wednesday’s practice that they are cognizant that too much tunnel vision on the destination can destroy the beauty of the journey. They sit in a good spot of life. They ooze with the wide eyed optimism of young ladies excited about their limitless future but appreciative enough to reflect on the bittersweet flavor that hangs over each dwindling day of their all too soon to end high school careers. It is a timeless high. “I just want to enjoy this year,” comments Calico. “We have had a lot of great times as a group.”