Sunday, October 28, 2018

Hesston, KS

 At the net
         Take a map of the United States and place it on a flat surface, face up. Fold in half by pulling the right hand side over to match up to the left edge – east to west. Then take the bottom of the map and fold to line up with the top edge – south to north. Open the map and the folds will intersect in the small Kansas town of Hesston. If you have been looking for the elusive “Middle America,” here it is.

   The origin of the name of Kansas derives from a Sioux word meaning "people of the south wind." Now, how cool is that? A much needed and welcome boost to a state that needs all the help it can get when it comes to the “cool factor”. 

Most western travelers view Kansas as a seven hour torturous boor that must be endured to reach the scenic Rockies. I, however, digress. Kansas has gotten a bad rap. I prepare for a trip across its prairie with anticipation. I find this drive I have made numerous times to be therapeutically relaxing with its tediousness of sameness. I have learned the landmarks, the towns that pop up from the flatness like an oasis, and when to anticipate the lonely stretches of openness so grand it leaves me with a calmness that I have grown to enjoy. The land is stark but the repetition for one traversing it is reassuring. The simplicity of this route requires developing a taste for its remoteness, but when acquired, the trip has become for me, quite scenic.

As harried 21st century creatures we instinctively retreat to our small town roots in search of sanctuary from the craziness too many of us have hypnotically fallen into. However, in Hesston, that all changed two and one half years ago when big city terror invaded the tranquil shield the citizens here had come to expect - as impending as a new day’s sunrise. Horrific and senseless multiple homicides had occurred at a local factory. It was a definitive town changing moment, an innocence lost forever. Hesston had been a burg where parents didn’t worry about where their children were or what they were doing as long as they made it home for dinner.

No more.

Coach Jason Peters
   On February 25, 2016, Cedrick Ford, a long time factory worker at Hesston’s largest employer, Excel Industries, took the lives of four co-workers and injured 14 others, in a shooting that the locals have never been able to give rationale to. From all accounts of his fellow work associates, Ford was well-liked and a hard worker. No motive. No political agenda. Immediate reaction of the town to the shooting was one of shock and confusion, not anger and retribution. Admirably, the town of 3800 came together in its collective compassion and grief.

Hesston is predominantly a Mennonite town, but not Amish, which is a distant relative branch of the church that shuns modern society. There have been many schisms in the Mennonite church since its founding in the 16th century. The branch that calls Hesston home lives a lifestyle and dresses in a way that is indistinguishable from secular American culture. The local church, since 1909, has hosted a two year school built on its teachings. Hesston College has an enrollment of 400 students representing 30 states and 15 foreign countries.

One of the church’s key tenants is pacifism, they don’t condone violence. At the time of the shooting, Excel Industries employed 1,000 people. Almost everyone in Hesston has a connection to the factory. The result of the shootings created a theological dilemma for the community. When good runs head on into evil; comforting answers can be elusive.

 Practice announcements
   The Swathers are coming off another record last season fall, finishing with a record of 40-5. They set a school record for most wins in a season, claimed a third place finish in last November’s state tournament, and was a state finals qualifier for the 4th straight year. They ground out a 9-1 mark in the very competitive Central Kansas League. They also won two regular-season tournaments. They have won at least 30 matches a season since 2013.

With four regulars returning for the 2018 season, a first state championship is not a distorted reach for the 2018 Swathers, in fact, it is a very doable goal. Coach Peters takes all of his team’s success in stride.

When a coach is locked in to his craft, in a zone, as they say, as Peters is now, the focus becomes razor sharp. You can never get enough of it, there's no grind to it. Time slows and before you know it, practice is over. And then it is game day. And before you know it, the game is over. And then the season is over. And now the calendar says it is time to get ready for next year. It is a success inspired Zen state of confidence for a coach in charge of a program that hammers out one record setting season after another. Peters is today in that zone.

It is the last day of summer, Labor Day 2018. Swimming pools and barbecues are on the calendar for most residents of Hesston seeking one final summer blast, but not for the volleyball players now responding to the whistle of Coach Peters.  The team has started the year with 10 wins in their first 12 matches. Tomorrow evening they have a big match with Cheney in a contest to be held at nearby Hillsboro.

The intensity of the holiday workout mirrors the magnitude of tomorrow’s match. At 3:30 pm sharp Peters blows his whistle and 35 girls scramble to a set position on the floor to 
begin warmups. Peters quizzes them as they quietly stretch. “We really want to emphasize serving tomorrow,” he announces to his athletes. “When are the three times we want to go conservative on our serve, make sure we get it in?” he asks. “After a timeout,” “Correct, give me another.” “Your first serve after you enter,” is the response from within the circle of girls. “Correct, and the third.” “On match point,” several players shout in unison. “Correct,” Peters says. “Other than those three let’s get aggressive tomorrow night and look for some aces.”

Instead of intimidation, Peters utilizes a quiet emphasis on what he considers the proper procedures to build a championship program. He is meticulous in all he does. Certainly he thinks winning is worth the effort. But victories 
    come as a result of solid preparation, not a moment's hysteria. But this low-key approach would not count for much if Peters’ players looked on him as some sort of pseudo-babysitter, lacking with passion. Senior captain Rylie Schilling is a four year varsity player who can verify the coach can jerk an errant player back in line with a speed that Bobby Knight would appreciate, while not raising his voice. “He is not a yeller,” she says. “But we know when he is not satisfied with an outcome.” Peters has made such accountability a cornerstone for his program. “There are always consequences for action(s). They need to learn that now because it will be that way all of their lives,” he says.

My first couple of years as head coach,” Peters recalls, “were pretty average, around .500. Since then we have done pretty well.” The unpretentious coach has done pretty well to the tune of a career mark 334-153.

Peters enters his 14th year as head coach. He interned his first three years as an assistant on teams that qualified twice for the state tournament. “I learned a lot from (Head) Coach (Heather) Ferralez. She has a daughter (Harley) that is a freshman player for us and is in our varsity rotation. Coach Ferralez was our junior high coach the past two seasons as well.”

Peters spends his work days before afternoon practice as a full time member of the Hesston High math department. “I student taught here,” says the graduate of nearby Bethel College who grew up in Goessel, 15 miles from Hesston. “They hired me and I have been here ever since.” Would you ever leave, I ask the married father of two daughters, seven and three year old? “I don’t see why,” he shrugs, “but you never know. I have a very good situation here, comfortable but challenging,” he says.

 On the attack
    A coach of high school girls is wise to understand that often solid player-coach relationships are built more on what a coach does not say more than what he does. Peters has figured this out. The Swathers senior captains relate to me t hat Peters doesn't over coach, in essence talking them to death, so when he does talk, he means it—and they listen. “He is low key,” says senior Jules Toews.  “And is so organized,” she says with a laugh. “He even schedules extra time for our bus trips just in case we break down,” Jada Mininger says, with a shake of her head. All three say they appreciate the consistency they have grown to expect in the Swather program. “He gives us a lot of feedback,” says Toews. “If we screw up,” says Mininger, “it is our own fault. Coach’s expectations are always clear. And he stays calm. No matter what is happening on the floor, you can look over and coach is just standing there telling us to settle down, everything is ok.”

Rylie Schiling is a four year varsity regular. In her first three seasons her team has finished in third place twice and second place once in the state tournament. This year’s goal is obvious. “We need to win state this year,” she says.” We are working on a lot of different combinations right now. We are getting used to our new players and our roles.”

“We lost three really good players to graduation from last year, “says Coach Peters. “Three were all state, one was state player of the year and all three are now playing in college. That is a lot of talent for a small school to lose,” he states. “Last year we didn’t really sub much. This year is different. Right now we have a rotation of 12. It is a lot of pieces to fit together. The jury is still out on this team, but we do have potential, just need to continue to work hard.”

 Post Game
   All three captains do not hesitate with a strong positive endorsement when asked to rate their hometown. Their body language says they are sincere. Towes and Mininger have families that go back at least three generations in Hesston. Schilling moved to the area as a preschooler when her father became the volleyball coach at nearby Bethel College. “I love it here,” says Mininger. Toews concurs, “It is just a very nice place to live. I might move away for college but my plans are definitely too someday move back here.” The town gets stereotyped, they all three agree. “We are known as a Mennonite town and we are. All three of us,” says Mininger, “our families are all Mennonite. Many times people don’t understand what that means." Toews says that outsiders read more into the religious affiliation of the community than they should. “We have other religions here,” she says.” It really doesn’t make a difference in our lives outside of school.” Mininger can set the ill-informed straight quickly. “When we go outside the area,” she says, "People ask if we are Amish and ride in horse drawn wagons since we are from Hesston. I say, do you see anyone named Yoder here?”

As I drive around this small town I am quickly struck by its neatness; one tidy and well cared for house after another, street after street of well landscaped properties. There is no over the top subdivision to separate the town’s haves from the have nots. Maybe the locals are all have “enoughs?” No exclusive gated areas, just middle class, no frills, down-to-earth domiciles, a practical town for practical people. In the real estate business, my wife informs me, they call it pride of ownership.

 Net intensity
   So how do you explain something as horrific as the Excel factory murders having occurred in such a pristine area? You can’t, the three senior captains tell me.  “It was horrible,” says Schiling. The murders took place at 5 pm, so with the exception of a few after school practices, the school schedule was not interrupted. But the resulting trauma cut to the bone, the town went into a collective shock. “A lot of our classmates,” Toews says, “have parents who are policemen and it really affected them. The day after was very eerie here at school. It was overcast and wet all day. It was almost like we were on a movie set of a horror movie. Everyone was just walking around saying did this really happen? But it did.”

It has been said that when a blind person carries a crippled person who can see, both of them get where they're going.  That is what has happened here in the middle of the Kansas prairie. This community depends on each member to regain the collective strength needed to persevere. It is an ongoing process.

When writing about unfathomable pain such as that inflicted by the Excel killings onto the citizens of Hesston, the over use of colorful adjectives falls flat. Small towns, as Hesston has learned, in this day and age are not immune to horrific acts of violence. In fact, these types of small town killings happen so often today that we tend to underestimate the trauma they induce, until it happens to your small town. Has the innocence died, I ask? “It has, in some ways,” says Toews. “But in some ways it has brought us more together. This was always a tight- knit community, but since that day, I feel we care for each other even more, take care of others, don't take for granted what we have here because it can all disappear in a second. This school is good in supporting each other. I think even more so since that day."

I ostensibly came to Hesston to document the prowess of its successful high school volleyball team. That is the cover I use each week to justify this two month on the road journey. Instead, my secret intent is to dissect a community, dig into what it means to live “here.” For an outsider like me, peeking in, the aftermath of tragedy and how the community chooses to react is the fastest vehicle to reach this destination.

Successful kill
    Hesston High School has a strong tradition in athletics and more success is anticipated for this fall. The boys cross country team finished last season as 11th in the state. The football team took second in the state two years ago and returns 14 starters from last year's 8 win team and the girls’ tennis team will be seeking its second state title in the last four years. Throw in volleyball and a lot of civic pride chest puffing is expected in Hesston's immediate future.

Ty Rhodes in his 19th year of working in public education, the last 18 spent at Hesston High School. "The first 11 years here I was the boys' basketball coach. I spent two years as Athletic Director, one year overlapping my time as coach. This is my 7th year as Principal."

Rhodes grew up as a basketball star at Winfield, KS High School. He spent two years playing for Coach Randy Smithson at Butler County Community College and then followed Smithson to Wichita State University where he played two years of Division I basketball.

Rhodes is proud of the across the board achievements of his school. "Our athletic teams are very successful, but so are non-athletic activities. We really push participation. We have over 100 students involved in our Future Business Leaders of America club," he states as an example of a diversified student body. "We don't want our kids specializing," he says. "There is too much of that these days. Our coaches, sponsors and directors are good about supporting each other. They don't want the student caught in the middle. The best interest of the child is always going to be more important than a particular teams’ success."

The lanky 6'6" principal remembers clearly the day that changed the community forever. "I had just gotten home," he recalls, "when I had a call from the Superintendent; active shooter at Excel. We went into lockdown right away with the after school practices and activities. None of our students were ever in immediate danger, that afternoon. It was all over very quickly, but the fallout from the emotional side was intense and maybe never will completely heal."

The collateral damage was wide spread. "For example," Rhodes says, "my secretary right here," as he motions with his right hand indicating through his office window the woman in the outer office. "Her husband is the police chief. He is the one who shot the shooter."

The match with Cheney lives up to the pregame expectations. Two years ago Hesston knocked off Cheney in the state semifinals. Last fall the Cardinals returned the favor, defeating the Swathers in a semifinal battle. Hesston would eventually at last fall's Class 3A state tournament finish third while Cheney would bring home second place.

The level of play throughout the evening was very high in both effort and skill. The crowd is large and engaged. The attendees are a diverse bunch with good representation from students to parents to local boosters of the home town team. On the plains of central Kansas, they appreciate good high school volleyball.

As promised, Peters uses a 12 player rotation as Swathers spend the evening pin balling from the bench to the court and back at a head spinning pace. The lineup incorporates five seniors, four juniors, two sophomores and a freshman. Cheney has a very sound team, indicative to their recent state performances, but on this night, Hesston is clearly the superior club.

With 6'1" senior Schilling, 5'11 senior Mininger, and 5'11 junior Talby Duerksen controlling the net and 5' 10 junior Elise Kaiser holding down the back line along with senior Elizabeth Lumbreras and junior Emily Koehn, the Swathers cruise to a 25-17 first set win. With seven players 5'10 or taller, Hesston is constantly on attack.
The Cardinals are a much more settled team for the second set, prevailing   21-25.  Coach Peters reminds his team during the break between the second and game deciding third set to continue the attack on offense but a more focused attention to their defensive movements and anticipation is needed.

The rubber set is all Hesston. Their experience shows as the Swathers take control early, limit their mistakes on the back row and play very sound all over the floor defense, to win going away, 25-18.

Steadfast in his coaching beliefs, non-negotiable with standards of conduct, with lot of confidence building calm to settle the teenage girls in his charge, the play-it-close-to-the-vest, always stoic Peters is asked before his team’s Labor Day workout if this is the group that will finally bring back the top prize in November. He shrugs his shoulders and blows his whistle. The BBQ might be hot and the pool waters cool, but on this Labor Day in Hesston, KS, it is time to practice.       

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