Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Fayetteville, AR



A pall of dread and doom, in disregard of what had been a gorgeous Indian Summer day, greeted my late afternoon arrival.

Last Saturday night, for the sacrilege it proclaimed to the college football world, the monstrous new state-of-the-art scoreboard at Donald W. Reynolds Stadium in Fayetteville, AR could not be turned off fast enough:  North Texas State 44, the Arkansas Razorbacks 17. No way. Ok, but how?

 Three in a row
I fear I have picked a most inopportune time to visit Fayetteville, AR, home of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. Even on Monday afternoon, when I arrive 48 hours after the weekend debacle, a suffocating cloud of disbelief and shock still hung over the Ozark mountain valley that harbors this quaint college town. Last Saturday, the faithful had sat stone silent through a very real old southern style butt kicking. You could have heard a mouse piss on cotton that night in Reynolds Stadium, it was so quiet, a heavily bearded waiter at the downtown Power House Restaurant informs me.  Heaped on top of this night of humiliation for the Hog faithful was another, hard to swallow, one touchdown home field loss to Colorado State the Saturday prior, not the way for a South Eeastern Conference heavy weight to open the season.

The last two Saturdays were supposed to be mere tune-ups for when the big boys of the SEC come a calling, nothing but a fine excuse to tailgate before a walk over win. These early season mismatches for the powers of the big dollar college football club are called win-buys, in other words, pay a weak opponent for a guaranteed win. Give a small school, like North Texas State - that really needs the revenue - a nice paycheck, at times in the seven figure range. It is win/win for both parties. This tidy fiscal arrangement allows for the power conference schools to work out the kinks against a sacrificial lamb that leaves bloodied - but richer. Somebody forgot to get the memo to North Texas State. Losing decidedly to the Mean Green of NTSU elicits the obvious question from the Hog loyalists: So what happens when the Crimson Tide roll into town?

But, the Coach is new this season (his predecessor was given a multi-million dollar buy out of the last three years on his contract to send him quietly on his way out of town) I point out, and the locals will be patient, I assume. Don’t bet on it, a motel desk clerk tells me Monday evening. “We lost a season opener at home a few years ago and Frank (Broyles, the Hogs late, long time and legendary, crusty Athletic Director) met him in the tunnel coming off the field at the end of the game and fired the old boy on the spot. It was the first game of the season,” he laughs “Now, what was that ole boy’s name,” he inquires of his friend loafing at an adjoining table?” Neither have the long term memory to recall the banished coaches’ name, only his sin.

This is Hog Land and don’t patronize the locals with talk about the Razorback’s baseball team that finished last season second in the nation, albeit with a roster full of California and Florida imports; or the cross country and track teams who have won multiple national titles, albeit with a cast of foreign Olympians. Don’t matter. Ever seen a tailgater at a cross country meet?

******

State POY four straight years
I was in town to document the long running blue ribbon Fayetteville High School girls’ volleyball program. However, an underlying reason to make this late summer journey was the opportunity to study and experience a community with both a successful college athletic program blended with a long time successful high school athletic program. I was not to leave disappointed in the insights I gained.

Located literally in the shadows of the Razorback’s gluttonous Taj Mahal of a football shrine (stadium),  currently undergoing renovations that by next fall will add 4,800 seats (raising total seating capacity to over 80,000), including new luxury suites, club areas and loge boxes, Fayetteville High School has built an eye opening athletic dynasty of its own. Recently, Sports Illustrated recognized the 2000 student high school as possessing one of the nation’s top 20 high school athletic programs. Since 1996, the purple and gray clad Bulldog teams have won a state best 90 combined state wide athletic titles.

The volleyball team at FHS over the past 15 years has patiently and methodically chiseled out its own niche in the local sports world. Under the direction of Coach Jessica Phelan and, despite competing in the fall directly with the Deep South’s obsession with football, the volleyball Bulldogs have built one of the nation’s top programs, at times ranked in the national top 20 polls. The Bulldogs enter the 2018 season as a three time defending Arkansas Class 7A state champions. 

The last four Gatorade State Player of the Year awards have been scooped up by two Bulldogs, both who graduated last spring. Haley Warner won the honors in the years of 2014 and 2017; teammate Ella May Powell was the recipient in 2015 and 2016. Warner now plays for the powerful Florida Gators while Powell as a freshman is the starting setter for the University of Washington. Both had been offered Division I full ride scholarships as 8th graders. It is hard, if not next to impossible. on the high school level to lose cogs of that caliber and not endure a bumpy next season.

 Coach Phelan
The 2018 Bulldogs enter the home stretch of their schedule with a very un-Fayetteville mark of 10-12. This is a program that has played for a state title seven of the past eight years, bringing home top honors four times. I had followed online the progress of the season and as the losses piled up, I from afar, grew concerned about my impending visit. How do I put a positive spin on what I anticipated finding - a dispirited team grinding through to finish a forgettable season as soon as possible, a traditional powerhouse that had fallen off the rails, now simply going through the motions before throwing dirt on the carcass of the 2018 season, was the question I pondered on my five hour drive down from St. Louis?

*****



Error, I have learned, is the ultimate inside job, and I have assuredly perfected this skill.

As I tend to do often, my preconceived vision of what I would find at the 2:15 Bulldog practice I was scheduled to attend was off by only a mere 180 degrees. The whole package: energy, focus, organization, supportive teammates; all ingredients that make for a championship level practice were this day vibrantly on display. This team practiced like a three time defending state champion; not a team with a losing record just mailing in the remainder of the season.

 Practice Drills
I asked Coach Phelan why all the positive vibes from a team seemingly anchored in the dire straits of mediocrity and a disappointing season? “I have three great seniors,” she explained in blunt response to my blunt inquiry. “They have been out front in keeping the focus sharp. All three are just outstanding kids. This is a very small class of seniors. The ones, who have stuck it out, these three, knew early that they were behind several outstanding classes and their opportunities as underclassman for varsity court time could and probably would be limited.”

Phelan took objection to my gloomy assessment of the season. “We play a very, very tough schedule. We have lost some close matches, but there can be such a thing as a-”good” loss, I have over time accepted this, when you know you are getting better. We have a lot of volleyball to play yet (this season) and you could see for yourself today that this team’s morale is high. They are having fun.”

The watershed effect of the strong players now graduated is a double whammy to this year’s seniors. “There was never much pressure on this group, they had a comfortable supportive role to play and they did it well,” the fifteen year Bulldog leader says. “All three were contributors to last year’s state (title) team, but they didn’t have to be leaders, until now. And that is tough.” Locked now into a role that requires this trio to quickly gain the respect from the underclassman, to be viewed now as pace setters, is a daunting task.

But, according to their coach, they have conquered well the crucible thrown at them.  “I couldn’t be more satisfied with all three,” is the evaluation Coach Phelan gives. “The positive mood and focus to get better each day, what you saw today (at practice), it is because of the attitude of my three seniors. It gets to the heart of what it takes for a group to be successful, to thrive: you have to work really hard and really embrace the power of being a teammate.”
.
 Senior Trio
There is no pressure on this group. All three seniors tell me in a post practice interview that they are comfortable with the lower expectations for the current season, that they can play loose and have fun, but come state tournament time, you just never know who can catch the hot hand. 

A big part of coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled. This will be the main mental focus as the team heads down the season’s home stretch with a 4th state trophy waiting at the finish line. In other words, the hunted has now become the hunter and that, Coach Phelan tells me, is in some ways a welcome role reversal from the high expectations of the past three years. For a team that knows what it takes to win championships to be lurking in the mid-season shadows is not a bad place to be.  "Don’t count us out yet for this year,” a confident Coach Phelan warns me. “I can see the pieces coming together."

*****

Claire Cooper, Carly Unruh and Jaden Weller are enjoying the twilight moments of their Bulldog careers. Unruh intends to play volleyball next year in college. Cooper and Weller plan to be full time students next fall, giving up the sport on the competitive level.

All three point to the resilience of this year’s team with pride, in effect, their footprint on the program’s legacy. They see their “no quit” attitude as a badge of honor they have earned the right to wear. But the goal of resilience is not just to live to fight another day, but, instead, to thrive.

Game action vs. Heritage
Adversity can tap unexpected strengths. “I am not naturally outgoing,” says Weller. “It has taken some real effort on my part to become more of a vocal leader.” She feels a strong obligation of duty to give back to a program that has given her so much. “Last year, I was the back-up setter to Ella May (Powell). She was an All-American, but she was just so good to me, taught me so much. For a player of her ability to be so supportive of her backup just meant everything to me. I can never begin to fill her shoes as a player, but I can strive to do my best in setting an example and to be the best teammate possible, like she was to me.”

Cooper and Unruh grew up as friends in Branson, MO, over the state line and an hour north of Fayetteville. “We knew each other all of lives,” says the gregarious Cooper. “I moved here in 8th grade and Claire in 9th grade,” says Unruh. “It was just coincidence it happened this way, but it was nice to have a friend already here.”

All three were involved in multiple sports through their elementary school days, but all concentrate now on just volleyball. “We pretty much have to,” says Cooper of the specialization. “It takes a lot of time to drill to be able to play at this level.  If we are not involved in the school season, then we are getting ready for club season,” she says of her year round commitment.

All three agree wholeheartedly that the school team takes priority. “We spend the club season trying to get better with the goal of winning the state championship for our school,” states Weller. “I cannot describe how good it felt when the ball hit the floor on the last point last year and we knew we were state champions. It seemed like the ball was never going to come down. It is something I will never forget; always take with me and it makes all the work worth it.” Cooper says that defining moment in the state title match still, "gives me chills."

I am impressed that the Bulldogs seniors have figured out that a failure in life will never be greater than a life’s regret. They all three inform me that when in a few weeks they peel away their sweat socked Bulldog game jerseys for the last time, they will do so with no regrets.

*****

The Northwest Arkansas region has seen an explosion in growth over the last generation. Fueled by the world headquarters of the retail giant, Walmart, the towns to the north of

After school practice 
Fayetteville - Bentonville and Rogers, have been inundated with so many new families the local school districts are stretched to their limits with constant building.

The four-county Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area, with 463,204 residents, is today ranked as the nation’s 105th most populated region. Fayetteville in 2010 was home to 73,580 people, a growth rate of 26.8% from the year 2000.

Fayetteville has all the ingredients that make college towns a desirable modern habitat. Locals enjoy a cultural identity from the University of Arkansas found nowhere else in the state. The area is a prominent arts and music center with a vibrant college entertainment district, anchored by numerous trendy and exotic bars and restaurants. And of course, there are the Razorbacks. Fayetteville's passion for the Hogs earned the city a #15 ranking on Forbes' latest "Top College Sports Towns" list. 

*****

When you are honest, sans the blinding pageantry, there is no logical educational defense for America’s obsession with intercollegiate athletics. But, its imminent demise has been proclaimed for almost as long as the existence of intercollegiate athletics itself. Like some pollution resistant carp, the beast continues to not only exist but to thrive in the very toxic quagmire itself  has created.

The National Collegiate  Athletic Association, who oversees major college athletics, is a text book example of a Cartel. By enforcing rules that prevent paying players (euphemistically called student-athletes by the NCAA) what they would make in a competitive labor market, they have created a slave labor pool of  students who own  high in-demand skills, but have no rights under the current system to share in the incredible wealth their labors produce.  

A superstar athlete in the two sports that are responsible for almost all of the revenue produced in college athletics, men’s basketball and, of course, football; generate literally millions of dollars but will receive only scholarship assistance and a small additional spending allowance in return. Wealth that would under a capitalistic system go largely to players flows instead to those who recruit them, namely coaches and athletic administrators. When Charlie Ward, a quarterback at Florida State University, won the
Top flight facilities
1995 Heisman Trophy as the best college football player in the nation, the FSU owned University book store made tens of thousands of dollars selling replicas of Ward’s  number 7 game jersey. But Ward himself, he testified, could not afford the $50 asking price to buy his own jersey. Today, 23 years later the throwback jersey is still a hot item on the FSU book store website. The now 47 year old Ward has never received any of the proceeds his image still to this day generates.

The University of Alabama’s football coach, Nick Saban, makes over $11 million annually to oversee the dynasty style Plantation he has built in Tuscaloosa, earning about as much in a month as his boss, the University of Alabama’s president, earns in a year. Today, in 41 states the highest paid state employee is a collegiate men’s basketball coach or a football coach. The starting Quarterback who led the Crimson Tide to a national football championship last January, Tua Tagovailoa, with his “salary” scholarship, is receiving less than one percent the earnings of his coach. Contrast that to professional sports where in a true free market capitalistic system the true worthy commodity, the players, have salaries that dwarf that of their coaches.

In the 1950s NCAA bylaws stated: “Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.” 

In today’s athletics arms race universities, despite a stated mission to create a place of higher learning and intellect, have commercialized athletics to the point where they are essentially running professional teams. Not burdened to pay market driven salaries while exploiting hundreds of athletes by using their images and skills for profit, the colleges hold all the bargaining chips, with the player’s scholarships dependent on participation.

According to data from the University of Michigan, one of the nation’s largest athletic revenue producing institution, the educational journey of a college athlete will often suffer a dismal crash landing. Nearly one-third of the recruited athletes to its Ann Arbor campus in the class of 2011 — 70 out of 221 — had quit their sports by November 2010, according to a report submitted to the provost by the Compliance Office. U of M’s Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger said the numbers are very similar year to year.

Major college athletics is fundamentally based on a mercenary system that one must believe will eventually cannibalize itself. The out of control spending on facilities to stay in competition with fellow institutions of high learning is insane. It is a system that cannot be maintained and will eventually cave under the weight of its own greed and the hypocritical treatment of its most basic and indispensable revenue source – the athletes themselves.

High on the Hogs
In 2015, when the players at the University of Missouri threatened to not play in a home football game against Brigham Young University unless the University President resigned, their demands were quickly met. The mostly white alumni were infuriated with the thought that such a small minority had seized such power, in effect, the patients running the asylum. The mostly black athletes on the Mizzou football team were almost giddy with the empowerment their threatened boycott, a work stoppage in labor terms, had so quickly sparked an unconditional surrender from the school’s administration. Shock waves rolled through the office of every Athletic Director of a major university in the land. Was there a revolt brewing on the plantation? Have the athletes finally figured out they are the valued commodity, not the coach, and without them there is no show, no need to expand stadiums and build new luxury boxes at Fayetteville’s Reynolds Stadium?

They have not, yet.

*****

Coach Phelan has a loaded volleyball resume that is of a five star caliber.  Growing up in the small and picturesque Missouri River town of Hermann, MO, she learned the sport under the tutelage of legendary Bearcat mentor Linda Lampkin, the winningest volleyball coach in state history. To go along with Lampkin’s 900+ wins and counting are 12 state championships, two on teams led by Phelan. “I grew up wanting to be a Hermann Bearcat,” Phelan says. “It meant everything, to try and keep the program going strong. I so looked up to the older players ahead of me. I like to think we have instilled those same traits, and the work ethic (needed) to make it happen, here at Fayetteville.”

Phelan matriculated to Northwest Arkansas in the fall of 1995 as a top recruit of a program in its infancy. The Razorbacks had started an intercollegiate volleyball program in 1994, the year before her arrival on campus. Known as Jessica Field in her Hog undergrad days, she was a true trailblazer. “It really appealed to me to come in on the ground level, to be a leader early on and to be part of building a strong program,” she says. Phelan’s accomplishments in her four year collegiate career are impressive. She left as an All-American, the first volleyball Razorback so honored. Her junior and senior seasons both ended with successful NCAA national tournament runs. She was honored as an Academic All-American for her work in the classroom. She was also a two time All-SEC first team selection.

After graduation, opportunities to continue her playing career were few. “I trained between my junior and senior college seasons with the US National team, but there was not really a professional league to move on to,” Phelan states. “I didn’t really give it much thought; these were the days (when) no real options were out there. I just accepted my playing days were over. I married after my college graduation and it just seemed like it was time to move on. My husband is from Fayetteville and played on the tennis team here so it was just natural to stay here and begin our careers. I earned my Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling and we just got on with our lives.”

Phelan spent four years working in the rehab field. She also volunteered to coach on the area’s expanding club volleyball scène. “The schools in the area had never had volleyball, but when the University added the program in 1994, it spurred the interest and area high schools started to add the sport,” the coach says. Fayetteville High School added volleyball to its athletic offerings in 1995.

“I, at first, was not interested in coaching,” Phelan says. “But with starting a family, I realized I wanted to coach at a level above just helping with a club team.” For one year she took a teaching/coaching job at nearby small school, Prairie Grove, with the assigned task of starting up the school’s volleyball program. The following year, the job at Fayetteville High opened and Phelan jumped at the opportunity to become the head coach of the volleyball program. Her reputation as a Razorback player gave her instant credibility. “The first few years we did struggle,” she shares. “We have always had good kids who will work hard, they just needed to see how much and how hard they had to commit. By the third year we were in the state tournament.”

*****

The Bulldogs demolish this evening’s competition, Rogers Heritage High School. Heritage is a relatively new school, a by-product of the Walmart infused area population growth.  The War Eagles, in existence for only a decade, have nowhere near the tradition of Fayetteville. From the boom area just north of Fayetteville, Rogers is still a school looking to mesh in the midst of so much upending growth. Tonight, they fall like dominos in three progressively widening straight sets; 25-19, 25-12 and 25- 9. Rogers has a young energetic coach determined to build a competitive program. But, on this evening they are not yet ready to compete with a program the caliber of Fayetteville. The home team is clearly too big, too strong and too skilled for the upstart opposition. However, to give the War Eagles some hope, the great thing about high school sports is that in the near future, with the hard worked needed, the fate of tonight’s adversaries could easily in a few years flip.
 
This is a young but talented Bulldog team. The VolleyDogs, as they are introduced in the pregame by the school’s professional sounding public address announcer, start two sophomores and two juniors. They rotate in two more juniors and a sophomore.

The Fayetteville program supports five teams; two freshman squads, a sophomore team, a junior varsity squad and the varsity. Over 70 girls are currently in the program. Phelan has four full time assistants. The younger squads are able to insert an athletic hour into their class assignments, but with the school employing a two hour block type schedule, the classes for activities do not meet each day. Some before and after school practices are necessary for the younger squads to get in adequate in-season court time. The varsity and JV both practice together, starting with the last class block of the day at 2:30, finishing each day at 4:30.

All five teams play full season slates necessitating a travel nightmare of cross scheduling. It is not unusual for some of the five teams to be at home on the same night others are traveling. Despite accommodating such a large number of student athletes, season starting roster cuts are still an unpopular chore for the coaching staff. “We have two feeder junior highs that come to us as freshman,” explains Phelan, “and they all have multiple teams. There are a large group of girls right now in Fayetteville wanting to play volleyball.”

*****

As I pack the car on Wednesday morning, headed home, I ponder Coach Phelan’s upbeat attitude about a season that on the surface the hard core critics would call disappointing. I look for a parallel I cannot find when reading the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sunday morning on-line edition’s obituary on Saturday’s Hog’s football loss. No one in the current Fayetteville volleyball program wants a season derailed anywhere short of a 4th consecutive state championship trophy and they will continue to pay the price to compete on the highest level their skills will take them to. But, they will not be held up to public ridicule if they fall short. That is the difference between student centered high school athletics and profit centered big time college athletics. I cannot as a lifelong educator logically defend the passion I (admit), like a majority of Americans, invest in college athletics. I can, however, climb up on my soap box and staunchly defend the resources we commit to high school athletic program such as the one at Fayetteville High School. Unfortunately, I can find no noble confluence of the two.

I ask Coach Phelan why she is not coaching at the collegiate level. With her background as an All-American player and multiple state titles on her coaching resume, it seems it would be a natural progression up the coaching ladder for a still young coach. “The competitive me would enjoy the college level," she told me. "But I would have to give up too much to go that direction and I am not willing to do that. I am a mother of three and a wife. Even coaching high school it gets hectic, but not like the time demands would be on the college level.”

“And,” the well decorated and cerebral coach says, choosing her words carefully, “I would miss the academic classes I teach. I teach three Advanced Placement Psychology classes. I love the mental stimulation I get from the academics here. It is a very nurturing environment we work in. The faculty really supports the athletic program and we coaches feel an obligation to produce players who achieve both on the court and as good school citizens. As you can imagine, we have students here who thrive when challenged in the classroom. That would be missing if I was a coach first and foremost, like I would be in college. For me, high school coaching is a much more impacting fit.”

Amen, Coach.




Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Luth. South, MO


Up to this point, my volleyball road trip has taken me to the rural wide open spaces of Oklahoma, Illinois and Kansas. Small towns, especially those who have strong athletic programs – like the three I have just finished with – soar or crash on the wings of their teenage warriors. These are communities where on your way to Lighting Up Friday Nights you will, in order;  turn off Willie, Waylon and the Boys, water the dog and hit the Tasty Freeze drive through.

 2018 seniors. A deep
and talented group
This week, I am staying off the road and spending some time here in my home town of St. Louis, MO with the Lutheran South Lancers. What I unexpectedly found was a small town cozy feel in a modern suburban setting.

We live in a world today, fraught with inconsistencies, unpredictabilities and galloping variables. It matters not if you approve of the technology induced 24/7 chaos our lives have become. The reality is, unless you seek drastic measures – like, disconnecting from the internet, a move off-grid to a remote Montana mountain cabin while bunkering down with a good stack of firewood, risking the possibility of having the Unabomber for a neighbor - you cannot escape modern life as a whirlwind of “new and improved.”  How about this for irony:  today, change is the only constant we can latch onto. What was state-of- the-art at the conclusion of yesterday is now this morning tossed on the trash pile of the obsolete. The world, somehow, has gotten itself in one big hurry.

So, it was refreshing for me this week to find at least a sliver of dependability by investing my time into a couple of days with the Lancers volleyball program. Consistency and the calming effect it induces is the cornerstone of the south St. Louis power Coach Carol Reinitz has built.

Reinitz is in her 22nd season as head coach of the South volleyball program. She is a graduate of Fox High School in Arnold, MO; just a short distance from the Lancers’ quaint and cozy 60 year old gymnasium. Reinitz spent her first year in education teaching and coaching at the public school in DeSoto, MO. The following year she was hired on at Lutheran South as PE instructor and assistant volleyball coach. She has been at the parochial school ever since, claiming today that she has enjoyed every minute of her time here.
 Action vs Francis 
Howell Central

Reinitz moved over to the South head coach’s seat after her first year internship as an assistant.  It has proven over time to be a comfortable fit for both her and her beloved school. She is currently on the verge of her 600th win. In 22 years, her Lancers have won 16 district titles and have qualified for 6 State Class 3 Final Fours. In 2016, LHSS came home with the state championship trophy, the first in Reinitz’s tenure. Last year, her young squad exceeded all pre-season expectations by taking second place at the state meet. To a player, the Lancers feel they should have won. They say this year, come November, there is unfinished business to attend to in Cape Girardeau, home of this fall’s Missouri State Championships. With a solid returning group of 8 seniors, it could well happen. The 2018 edition of this black and gold clad powerhouse, I can attest to, is very good, indeed.


I asked Reinitz for the secret to churning out such a consistent winner. She informs me I have answered my own question. “We are consistent,” she says. “We start and end each practice with a prayer. I see that as very important and as a Christian school we have not only the right to do so, but an obligation to our faith to do so. Also, we have very clear expectations, both on the court and off. There is a long tradition here of representing ourselves and our school in a positive way. We are committed to each other and our mutual goals. It is the Lutheran South way ”

Watching a mid-season practice, it is obvious that this team is focused, their pace sharp and efficient. The drills are run with little explanation from the veteran coach. A whistle and a short coaching command propel the athletes scrambling to their next assignment. “We drill the same most every practice,” explains Reinitz.   “We do not have to waste time with explaining a drill, they already know the drill and most important, they know why we run the drill, how it builds on the skills we feel are important.”

“We spend a lot of time and we begin every practice with (an) emphasis on ball control,” explains Reinitz. “Everything we do builds off of this. As we move longer into practice, it goes unsaid that everything is based on ball control.”  


Lutheran High School South was founded in 1957. Today, the suburban campus is home to 540 students. Unlike many of its neighboring private schools, LHSS is currently in a vibrant state of steady enrollment. 


 Team First, the bench
gives its support
One of three Lutheran high schools in the St. Louis area, it’s student population is overwhelmingly white, reflecting the makeup of its surrounding neighborhoods. The St. Louis secondary education landscape is dominated by many strong and tradition rich private schools. The Catholic Church sponsors several nearby highly decorated all girl high schools. In a city known for the introductory question of “where did you go to high school,” parents willingly pay $25,000+ a year in tuition at some of the area's prestigious schools to give their daughters an elite education and connections to the area’s higher social class. South fights hard aganist schools deeply entrenched with large endowments to maintain its south side foot hold.

Lutheran South’s innovate curriculum is a component the school actively promotes. The instructional day is divided into modules or MODS. Students study in Large Group, Laboratory and Small Group settings. The flexibility this scheme produces is the basis for the label, FlexMod. Time is available for the additional teacher contact time, group project time or individual study time. The school’s web page touts the cutting edge schedule mode as allowing students, “the opportunity to develop organizational and time management skills you will need to be successful at the university level.”

LHSSproudly labels itself as a school for the children of working class families. The school stresses in its marketing that its graduates are prepared for college success at a tuition rate more in line with the budget of a middle class family. School leaders are proud of a hard earned reputation for high academic standing. Lutheran South’s college preparatory curriculum results in 98% of graduates attending colleges and/or universities.

 Coach Reinitz and 
injured
senior Danielle Bishop
Johnathan Butterfield is in his first year as LHSS’s principal. Previously, he was an elementary principal at a Lutheran school in the suburb of Kirkwood. I catch him at 3 pm as he is trying to switch hats from principal to dad. “Heading off to another game,” he says. The father of five, two who are students in the school he oversees, is in a perpetual “heading to game,” mode. “It keeps me busy,” he admits.

Butterfield is well aware of the role athletics play in the overall health of his school. ‘Sure, it is important,” he says, with a nod to a solid athletic program’s enhancement in convincing potential student’s parents that the tuition required to attend LHSS  is a good investment in their child’s future. “It is a carrot, but it should never be the primary reason for choosing a school,“ he states. Most athletes at South are multi-sport athletes and many also participate in non-athletic co-curricular activities. “Participation in roles outside of the classroom is so important not only for fun, but also for developing a well-rounded individual,” he states.

Lutheran South has made a noticeable investment in its athletic facilities. The modern, on campus sports complex is impressive. A new all turf field with upgraded bleachers and press box, surrounded  by an eight lane all-weather surface track, gives visual proof of the financial commitment to athletics. Results are now becoming tangible. For example, in the past, the Lancers football program suffered through perennial doormat status, year after year being a favorite homecoming game choice for neighboring schools. No more.

“We have to make a commitment to compete with other schools, both private and public,” says Butterfield. “There are many good options for parents in this area when they are choosing a high school. Athletics often will come down to what tips the scale. Our kids are students first, but we also are proud of our teams and we give them the support they deserve.”

“We are fortunate that we have most of our head coaches on staff as full time teachers,” Butterfield notes. “That does not happen much anymore, a majority of high school coaches in this day are not on staff, they just come in and coach. This is normally out of necessity, so we are fortunate. We have a very dedicated staff, always willing to do the extra, if it benefits our students. Coach Reinitz, for example, was here at 7:15 this morning and will go home about 6:30 this evening, when her practice is over. We have a lot of dedicated staff like this and that is why our athletics are so successful, but also so beneficial to our students.”



 Upgraded game 
field and Track
Senior Danielle Bishop is, unfortunately, one month into the season sidelined by injury. She broke her foot over the summer playing with her club team. The blood of South volleyball runs thickly through her veins. Her sister played for the 2016 state championship team. “I played some varsity as a sophomore but, because of injuries, I didn’t play at state,” she shares. Her older sibling was instrumental in her grade school decision to play volleyball. “She told me I had to,” she says with a laugh. “My parents told me in fifth grade that I had to make a choice between volleyball and soccer. Both school seasons were in the fall and I couldn’t make a commitment to both, so I followed my sister and have never regretted the decision,” she says of her choice to stay indoors.

Bishop says the time the sport demands, to play at the high level South competes on, can be daunting and at times overwhelming, but, “It has all been worth it,” she states with conviction.

Coach Reinitz says Bishop has Division I talent. “She is so court savvy,” says the coach about her hobbled outside and middle back. “You cannot teach what she does. She is a natural.” 

In spite of her coach gushing over her skills, Bishop says that after this season’s completion, she will hang up her volleyball shoes for good. “I don’t plan on playing in college. I just think it would be too much like a job, not something I am doing for fun, like high school. Right now my focus is on rehab and I hope to be back playing by October. I got my boot off last week and so far, everything is good. Sitting and watching has made me realize how much this (volleyball) means to me.”


 Practice Drills
Senior Natalie Robinson mans the positon of Libero. Coach Reinitz describes the three year varsity player as, "amazing." This is a very good class, the coach evaluates of the deep and talented senior group.. "They have played key roles here, going back to the state tournament," in 2016.

Seniors Peyton Van Nest and Livie Sandt, with Bishop currently out of commission, are now the unquestioned experienced team leaders, the engines that drive the Lancers on their state-bound quest. Both are accomplished setters, allowing Coach Reinitz to employ a 6-2 offense. Neither leaves the floor for rotation reasons as both are dual hitting threats, as well.

The two long-time friends are both committed to next fall play Division I volleyball; Van Nest at the University of Missouri-Kansas City while Sandt will take the court for the University of Dayton Flyers, having  committed to the Atlantic 10 Conference member after her sophomore year.  

Many private high schools who find success on the athletic fields and courts do so at the constant torment and loud complaint of their public school rivals by employing a mercenary approach of recruiting based solely on athletic ability, often with free or reduced tuition rates. That is not the case at South. Over the years most Lancer volleyball players grew up in the area’s robust Lutheran elementary schools. That has been instrumental in developing the year after year powerful teams LHSS is known for. “We seniors all grew up playing against each other in the elementary league,” says Van Nest. “We became friends during the summers by attending camps up here (LHSS).”

Sandt, a four year starter, says what she will miss most when she transitions to college will be the relationships with her teammates. “We have been real successful here with winning, and we will not settle for anything less this year than a state title, but what I will always remember, and will really miss, are my friends on this team.”
    
 Under the coaches' gaze,
ball contol practice drills
Legacy is a phrase that arises often when painting the portrait of long time excellence that is today Lancer volleyball. The roots run deep. Sandt, for example, is a double legacy, both of her parents being graduates of South. Both seniors feel duty bound to pass on the torch. “When we leave here,” says Sandt, “we will make sure to leave the same program in place that was here when we were freshman.”  Her former grade school rival and now good friend, Van Nest agrees. “This has been such a great experience and honor to play with my teammates. Coach always stresses doing things right and treating each other right. It gives us a lot of confidence when games get tense. We know we are a team and have each others' back.”

Both standouts appreciate the balance in their busy lives Coach Rienitz allows for. “We play volleyball pretty much year round,” says Sandt. “We will get a couple of weeks off at the end of the school season and a couple of weeks off at the end of July, when club season ends and before school practice starts. Other than that we are always on the court. It can become a grind, but coach knows how hard we push ourselves. She is the one telling us to not over do it.”


The night’s opposition, Francis Howell Central, is located in St. Charles County, the fastest growing area in the St. Louis Metro region. The corn fields and gravel roads of a generation ago have been replaced with strip malls and multi lane limited access ribbons of concrete. As parents with the resources make the westward move, highly acclaimed schools, well supported with high citizen approved tax rates, await their children. The Francis Howell school district is one of the state’s fastest growing educational entities. The suburban growth has necessitated the current need for three 2,000 enrollment high schools within its boundaries.

The Spartans have shown improvement over the past few years but this evening they put up little resistence to the powerful Lancer juggernaut, falling in two book end sets, 25-16, 25-16. After an 8-8 tie in the first set, the outcome was never in doubt as the Lancers roll to their eighth consecutive match win.

Lutheran South is not a physically imposing squad, not the kind to strike fears into an upcoming opponent who has not seen them in game action. But such an initial appearance, in this case, is deceptive. This team is very athletic and has the volleyball skills to play with a level of confidence that grinds down an opponent. With no player over 5’11”, they depend on court IQ and savvy to spearhead a relentless attacking philosophy. The Lancers play to their strengths with little concern for the opponents’ style of play. This “we do what we do” philosophy results in a consistency of play that is a long standing staple of Coach Reinitz coached teams; a strategy ingrained into Lancer volleyball players from the first day of practice of their freshman year. “We always feel we are prepared,” says the coach. “We devote a lot of time to scouting the opponent. But, we also stress that if we execute the fundamentals, winning will take care of itself.”


Coach Reinitz readily admits to her addiction, she is a “coaching lifer.” “I can’t see myself ever stepping completely away from volleyball,” she says. “The kids make it all worth the effort.”  Reinitz always knew she wanted to coach and had the blessing of a strong role model to guide her. “My dad quit college to go into the Army and fight in the Korean War,” she shares. “He always wanted to be a coach but he had to support a big family of us. He was a police officer first and then became a car salesman, but he never lost his desire to coach. He coached his kids all the way through our childhood. I saw what a difference he made in so many young lives. He has passed away, now, but his passion was passed on to me. He is a big part of who we are as a program.”

With young athletes, it is not the words a coach says, but the energy her message brings. Reinitz has a wide reaching and growing coaching tree. All three of her very capable assistants are her former players. The area Lutheran elementary league is today stacked with coaches that played at South, learning the nuances of the game under  Reinitz's guuidance. “That is so important to what we do,” she states. “I am so proud of what we have built here and not just for the winning we do, but even more so for the character of the players who have made us what we are.”

Most girls who have passed through this elite program came from good families. Still, adolescence is a tough time for even the most grounded teen, wrought with pitfalls that can tragically derail the most promising of futures. Often times, the catalyst to provide a needed gentle nudge, a timely point in the right direction while giving the unconditional support paramount to unlocking youthful potential, is a coach.  When this happens, like it has been for the last 22 years with Lancer volleyball, a legacy will grow. In today’s hectic and evolving world, it is,  I think, a neat story.