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 
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.