Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Pleasant Hill, MO

Forty-nine year old Coach George Creason has been at the helm of the Pleasant Hill volleyball program churning out one outstanding season after another for the past 20 years. He never played high school volleyball because it was not offered to boys in his hometown of Hannibal, MO, best known for its most famous native son, the American writer and humorist, Mark Twain. 

 Always on the Attack
The Pleasant Hill, MO High School Chicks (yes, the boys’ teams are the Roosters) volleyball team have never been known over the years to cart home a basket full of post-season individual honors. What they are known for is a trophy case full of conference and district plaques – 10 district titles in the last 20 years, plus six state final four trophies, the latest three; 2015, 2016 and 2017, in consecutive years. This year’s senior class has never known a high school season to end anywhere short of the state tournament. In the past 20 years the 100 or so graduates of the Creason-led volleyball program have gone on to do great things, but only four have played Division I college volleyball.

Congregating  in the Pleasant Hill high school gymnasium on a late fall afternoon and  after the completion of the team’s last regular season practice of the year, Creason’s 29 players, grades 9-12, mingle and enjoy hot pizza brought in to honor the group of four seniors. 

The coach and I discuss in order: the past, the present and the future. Creason is a man of meticulous order, he thrives on it. He does not like his world cluttered with unnecessariness. He has too much to do in his already 80 hour work week for such frivolity. If it makes us better, we do it, he explains. If not, we don’t. 

Creason says he endured a few frustrating early coaching years as he learned his craft. He now sees time management as the key to not only final four appearances but for also preparing teenagers for the reality of accountability that awaits them like a splash of cold water to the face in their soon to be adult years. “I have high expectations and I expect us to be on task when we are in the gym,” he declares.

 Coach George Creason and
Asst Codi Winslow
Creason’s tone is a throwback many bemoan today we need more of. As a society we have created for our children a sterile, structured environment in which risking adversity is discouraged. In many ways, we have stifled youthful creativeness. The American child of the new millennium is  not playing catch, hot box or Indian Ball  in the back yard, with all the inherent arguing  over the ground rules unique to each yard, like kids use to do. Today, the rules are made for them with a membership to a select team playing under the formal rules and regulations of adult organized leagues; as opposed to the impromptu neighborhood ball playing activities of past generations.

Creason tells me he wants his players to know how to play as a team without him dictating every move. “Our players over the years,” Creason says, “have been mostly program players. We have had a few players who could get by just because they had so much talent; but not many. We set clear expectations and then they have to figure out how to meet our expectations, not the other way around. What they learn by fitting into the program is how to keep moving forward, no matter what. If we take a step back, we figure out why and then start moving forward again. That is a life lesson; you fit into the group plan but you as an individual are responsible for figuring out what you need to do to help the team.”

By eliminating the unnecessary, you allow the necessary to speak. The pizza after the final practice, I am told by the players, is a long standing tradition.

George Creason wins as a volleyball coach for the same reason he would win in any activity he decided to lead. Creason understands the importance of  “The Team.”

The adults at the controls of high school athletics have a responsibility to teach the young in their charge the value of being a good teammate. If not, the huge amount of effort and resources taxpayers pour into educational extra-curricular activities is a waste of time for the 90% who will not play beyond the high school level and the 99.99% percent who will never make a living competing as a professional. All, will at some point, often in the peak years of life, have to walk away, even those with god-like talent, the Michael Jordan types. Then what?
 After practice pizza

A true “Team” has a common vision which, if brought to fruition, creates a magical harmony with everyone involved pulling on the same rope, in the same direction. You don't need to be best friends with every teammate. No major life long bond is required for a team to drive together towards a common goal. Attempting to force bonding on a diverse group, with multi-layers of individual needs, is in the end, always futile.

Instead, the dynamic needed in any concoction that will produce team success is for the whole to exceed the sum of the parts. Trust will fuel the peeling away of the veneer levels of individual selfishness that many times staggers the forward movement of a group. With its removal, the team is born. Every championship team possesses it: trust in your own role, trust in your teammates support and trust in your coaches’ ability to steer the team through constant outside distractions and divisions. Like a parent setting the family course, the coach needs the backing of all members. In Pleasant Hill in 2018, Creason has backing community-wide, because he has earned it.

When it does all come together, when it clicks with all the stars aligned, the beauty of the team emerges; the 1969 World Series winning Miracle Mets, the 1980 Miracle on Ice Gold medal winning US Olympic Men’s Hockey team or the 1983 Jim Valvano led NCAA Men's Basketball National Champion Wolfpack of NC State - all famous feel good examples of the marvel of teamwork. Don’t ever give up, don’t ever give in. In the end, history never immortalizes the individual but instead, the ultimate champion, the team.

 In the late summer of 1992, the small rural high school in Smithton, MO needed a science teacher who was also certified to teach a Physical Education class, maybe two. Whoever filled the slot had to also take on the head coaching responsibility for the girls’ volleyball program. A more accurate job description would have been to take on the whole program’s coaching responsibility. The job posting failed to mention there was no assistant coaching salary in the budget.

Science teachers in small rural schools are like a Coupe deVille hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box - hard to find. The mandatory volleyball coaching duty at Smithton in 1992 further discouraged what was understandably already a short line of applicants.  The Tigers had never claimed a conference or a district title in volleyball. Support was nil, interest amongst the 100 or so females of the school, even less. What was needed was not a volunteer coach-who in their right mind would volunteer to be put through such anguish-but instead,  a conscripted one in desperate need of a job. The district’s approach to would-be suitors was simple, if you need a teaching job, you have got to take on volleyball, and practice starts in a couple of weeks.

Reset to 1992: Smithton, meet your new volleyball coach, 24 year old George Creason, a former college wrestler who had never played volleyball, was not from the area and really at the time did not want to teach science. But, Creason needed a job and Smithton needed a science teacher. Thus was born a shotgun marriage of necessity and desperation, but certainly not one of convenience. While the ink dried on the contract that day 25 years ago, it is safe to say that neither side felt as if they had just won the lottery.

I ask Creason how he prepared for his first professional job. “I didn’t have much time,” he says. “My sister played college volleyball, so I was not totally without any knowledge, but I was pretty close.” While earning his Physical Education degree at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, Creason had taken several classes under the school’s volleyball coach. He now knocked on her door begging for any advice. “She helped me all she could,” the coach remembers, “But there was only so much she could do in such a limited time.”

I offer Creason my sympathetic acknowledgement of what must have been a nightmarish way to enter the world of coaching. Good thing, I rationalize, that the Smithton community  had to have low expectations of what the new coach could do. He confirms that the team had a lot to learn so they hired a coach that could learn right along with them. “But, you know, we survived and we did okay,” Creason tells me.
 2018 Seniors

Creason claims that not knowing much about a sport as a young coach is not always a negative. There is a syndrome in sports called 'paralysis by analysis.' Many young coaches fall victim to it, often out of insecurity, but Creason avoided that pitfall; he didn’t try to overcoach his early teams, conceding he had not the knowledge to overcoach. However, he was not trapped by a false sense of security, either. “I learned as we went, I admit. But, I don’t care how long you have coached, how successful you have been, you must always strive to improve, to learn more and to get better.” When the innerdrive that now propels him dissipates, “I will be done,” he says. 

"After four years,” Creason says, “I was ready to move on, I had learned a lot.” Learned to a tune at Smithton, I would find out, of 85 wins and 18 losses in four years with a group that nobody had wanted to coach. I asked the obvious question, how did you pull off what sounds like a Hoosiers type turn-around? “They learned to play and I learned to coach,” he says. The final year of his four years at Smithton, 1997, this previous rag tag bunch of four years prior, roared to 33 straight wins before finally tasting defeat in the state championship match.

In 1998, Pleasant Hill was looking for a four headed applicant: a head volleyball coach, an assistant wrestling coach, a physical education teacher and a science teacher. Creason saw his name written all over the job posting, the perfect candidate. “I wanted to get to a bigger school. I thought Pleasant Hill would be a good fit.” It has been, for sure. When Creason arrived, the Chicks volleyball program was competitive. Twenty years later, they are a year after year powerhouse.

For Creason, the school gym is his laboratory, his testing ground for the phenomenal successful teams he has guided for the last two decades. "I spend a lot time here in this gym," he admits. “We don’t talk much about specific goals,” he says. “It all runs together after a while, anyway.” With a Hall of Fame caliber record of 628-145, the tangible success of Creason’s career is above reproach. But, as he says, you become numb to the numbers until “it all runs together.” What stays distinctive, he says, is the athlete, and that is where his laser sharp day to day focus is squarely aimed.

Most of Creason’s players over the last 20 years, when they walk across the spring graduation stage, have left volleyball in life’s rear-view mirror. When the last ball of their fourth season hits the floor, the final point now in the scorebook, most are done with the sport. What they will take with them are not medals and trophies but the deposits they have made daily for four years into a memory bank of their high school experiences. That is what sticks.

Pleasant Hill is another of many small Midwestern towns that has undergone a major reshaping in the last two decades. The once safe buffer from urban sprawl of open farm fields are now swallowed up by the strip malls of suburbia.  As  the inner core of the original suburbs that surrounded Kansas City in the post-war boom years slide into urban neglect, farther out, with the continued improvement of a system of outer belt roads, towns like Pleasant Hill have  transitioned from an agrarian based rural setting to a bed-room community of urban commuters.   

Located at the intersection of Missouri highways 7 and 58, Pleasant Hill is 20 miles from the Jackson County eastern suburbs and 40 miles from downtown Kansas City.

 Defensive Intensity
The racial makeup of the city is overwhelmingly Caucasian, 95% as of the 2010 census. With a student enrollment of 690, Pleasant Hill High School offers a modern education in a setting just large enough to offer sufficient social and academic  options, but not so  big as to lose its small town community identity.

Pleasant Hill is not Mayberry, but it is not the Bronx Zoo, either.

Living in a small town can be like living in a large family of somewhat contentious relations. Growing up in a large city is more like being an only child with lots of secrets. Small towns can suffocate or nurture; in essence the best of fun times or the worst of awful times - and the flip can be as sudden as a Missouri weather change. 

Senior Middle Hitter Macey Barker tells me she appreciates the opportunities her lifelong home community has given her, but she also is eager to test the waters of a bigger world. “I want to major in pre-vet, see how that goes and then go from there. I will miss volleyball, for sure. But I am sure I will find other ways (as outlets) for my time. But playing volleyball all these years will always be with me, (part of) who I am and I know that it has shaped my work ethic and that will help me my whole life. So yes, I am glad I have played and all the effort and time has been worth it, for sure.”

Senior Saylor Zurcher is the only one of the four volleyball playing seniors who has not lived her entire life in Pleasant Hill. The “outsider” moved in as a second grader. “We have all grown up with each other,” she says. Zurcher has missed her senior season due to a foot injury but intends to continue playing volleyball next season for Baker University in Ballwin, KS.

 Student Body support
Senior Defensive Specialist Paige Zieman has lived in the area her entire life, but endured a major upheaval to her quaint little world at the age of 12, when her mom remarried. She blended into a family with four older step-sisters who all played Division I athletics. One step-sister, Kindred Wesemann, who after her senior season playing basketball  for Kansas State University,  won the NCAA women's three-point shooting contest at the 2017 Final Four. She then, on national television, topped the men’s winner, Peter Jok of Iowa, for the overall collegiate three-point shooting title. While only worth 15 minutes of Sports Center fame on the world of athletics' stage, Wesemann’s feat is locally another brick in the wall of accomplishments for the first family of Chicks’ athletics. I ask Zieman if she feels any pressure to live up to high expectations in the presence of such an accomplished family of athletes. “No, I am not very good and they know it and so do I,” she says with a giggle. (Coach Creason will later tell me that Zieman is a solid contributor to his team and an unselfish teammate, but is “realistic” about her talent, a refreshing occurrence from the norm, he understates.)  “I like sports,” the slightly built senior says, “and I play three sports now. I don’t think I would have  done  as well in high school classes as I have if I didn’t have the discipline my busy schedule gives me. But, my goal is to get into the medical profession and I am going to the University of Missouri next year. So I will need to spend a lot more time on my studies.”

Senior Ana Hanes is the only one of the seniors who saw considerable court time before this season. She is a four year varsity player and would like to see her career end with a fourth appearance in the state final four, with one new twist, “this year,” she says with conviction, “we need to win it.” At last year’s state tournament, Hanes set the state record for kill percentage. The 5’10” outside hitter has committed to play collegiate volleyball next fall for Division II Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO. “I want to coach,” she says, “and I want to major in elementary education. It would be really great if I could give girls the same experience I have had here. It has been great and I will leave with no complaints.”

As we are now deep into the year of the #metoo movement and on the cusp of the disastrous and polarizing Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings; I can’t help but to ponder how the relationship of an adult male coaching teenage girls is now evolving in this confusing time? Always a slippery slope for a male coach to navigate, today, the stakes are much higher, the appropriate line to not cross, now much closer and narrower. The issue has become the media fueled social issue of the day and any male coach with any sense is on guard.

Codi Winslow is in her first year as the assistant coach to Coach Creason. She played for him for four varsity seasons, the first freshman Creason had ever used in the varsity rotation. After graduating from PHHS in 2014 and playing volleyball at nearby William Jewell College, Winslow graduated last spring with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. She is currently back home, substitute teaching as much as possible and preparing for grad school. She and Creason both agree she has been impactful in her first year on the bench.  

 Senior Night
Winslow says that one of Creason’s strengths is how he handles each individual girl. “It is different,’ she states of a male coaching females, “but he does a great job of reading each girl. He knows who he can push and he knows the ones who will fall apart if he gets on them too hard. He was hard, pushed me constantly to get better, but I could take it and I wanted to be pushed. Others would just fall apart if he had gotten on to them like he did me. It is not something he ever talked to us about, be we (players) all recognized it and we didn’t take it personal. I think if he had ever stopped pushing me, that would have really bothered me.”

“I want to coach the rest of my life,” Winslow says. “I have been doing some club coaching and now working with the school team, I love it. I am always trying to learn,” she says. With a psychology background, personal relationships and how the team is affected by them is a factor that grabs her curiosity. “It has been really good for me to have played for coach and viewed him as a player would and now coaching with him and viewing him as a coach. Things he does now make more sense to me. They didn't always when I was a player for him. He always sees the big picture, he always stays (the course).  It gives a more insightful view and has made me appreciate how tricky coaching can be.”

 Set for the Kill
“It is different,” Winslow states, from a player's perspective the dynamic of  an opposite gender coach could be problematic, but does not have to be . “I have had both (male and female coaches) and both have their pluses.” What about “awkwardness,” I ask in regard to the gender? “You have to be careful,” she says. Comfort can be achieved in time. “When I played, I obviously knew that Coach was a male but I don’t think I ever really thought it impacted our player coach-relationship, I just kind of forgot about it. A lot of that is just coach. He is very dry in his communications with everyone, even around school with students. He is not real big with praise, but when he is critical it is constructive. You understand why he is being critical and what you need to do to improve. I tell the younger girls 'get used to it. He is not going to change so you need to, if you want to play.' I will tell them when I see them looking away when I am talking to the team, ‘hey, you think Coach Creason is going to put up with that? Get your eyes on me.’ They might as well learn now. "

Both coaches tell me it is good to have a female on staff to keep that comfort level, that safe buffer. “She has been very good," Creason says. "We lost a very good assistant female that took some time off for her family she was starting. Hiring Codi has kept that balance going. She does a good job of preparing the younger players for what they can expect when they get to the varsity level. That is something we talked about and I wanted her to take on.”
All coaches today, both male and female, but in this day, especially males, are faced with a professional dilemma of how to devote so much time and passion to coaching a student-athlete while still  maintaining an appropriate distance? Creason tells me it is not hard. “It is no different than what is appropriate in the classroom,” he states. Creason  is also the chairman of the PHHS science department. "You need to have a caring way balanced with common sense.” 

According to Winslow, perception, especially in a small school community, is crucial. “Having me here, I can do a lot of things coach doesn’t need to,” she states. “I know as a player, it was easier to go to a female coach on some issues than it was the male head coach. The female assistant can be more (empathetic) with a high school girl than an older male coach can be and probably shouldn't be.”

According to Creason, there are basic rules of leadership that apply across the educational profession. “Good teaching is good coaching and good coaching is good teaching. Nobody has a magical secret for motivating students in the classroom or athletes in competition, but priorities and expectations should not change. Students want to know what I need to do to get an A. Volleyball players want to know what I need to do to get playing time.” 

Talent level and work ethic both factor into the equation, he says. That is where a coach can set the bar, motivate his athletes. According to the long time successful coach, it is paramount for the coach to ensure that, “expectations should always rise above talent level,” he says. If not you have underachieved. Those around the area’s volleyball scene for the last 20 years know that Creeson’s teams never underachieve.

“When I first started,” the former wrestler remembers, “I thought you coach them (girls) just like you coach boys. It doesn’t work. I learned that real quick. A big difference is that girls do not like to be reminded of how good previous teams and players were. They take that real personal, take it as a put down. I stay away from that (area).”  

I mention to both Creason and Winslow that when I spoke to the four senior girls they all immediately listed going to state as their goal. I asked the players, "does coach talk to you about getting back to state as a goal?" Doesn’t have to, Macey Barker tells me, “We know we have been the last three years and we are not going to be the class that breaks the string.”

Many times what a coach doesn’t say is more important than what he does say. 

 2018 Chicks
The word around the summer volleyball circuit this year was if you want to give Pleasant Hill some payback for the last 20 years, you better do it this year. 

Forget it.

In August, Creason put perhaps the least experienced team he has had over a 25 year career on the court. “We were going to struggle early,” he said, “and we did.” The Chicks  had graduated six regulars from last year’s 29-6-1 team. Another regular moved over the summer with her family to nearby Blue Springs. The Chicks returned only two players with varsity experience.

In the first few weeks of this season, his team dropped matches in straight sets to St. Pius of Kansas City and St. Michael the Archangel. In a late August match they lost to fellow Missouri River Valley Conference member Excelsior Springs, 2-1.  At last Saturday’s Grain Valley Tournament, the Chicks paid back both St. Pius and St. Michael Archangel with wins in straight sets, 2-0. This evening they demolish a very good 17-5 Excelsior Springs club in two dominating straight set wins, 25-14, 25-13, improving their season mark to 23-10-1. Next week, the Chicks will host the Class 3 District Tournament.

Is this a state tournament level team? "That is always a hard call," Creason says. "Anyone can have a bad (game) and if you have it in the post season, well, you are done." `

High School volleyball in the state of Missouri has in recent years been dominated by private schools. In Pleasant Hill's six final four appearances under Creason, they have been eliminated by a private school all six times.
“I think we are peaking at the right time,” Creason says. “Saturday and tonight were good indications,” he says of the three measuring stick pay back wins of the past three days. The win tonight guarantees that regardless of tomorrow night’s final regular season game at Odessa’s outcome, the Chicks have secured  their ninth straight conference title banner. This year’s stout sophomore class was in kindergarten the last time someone other than Pleasant Hill wore the crown of the Missouri River Valley Conference volleyball champs.

This year’s team is young, but so will be next year’s as only one junior is listed on this year’s varsity roster. Five sophomores and a freshman fill current rotation spots and fill them very well. 6’2 sophomore Tera Reberry is already a force, a rising star, and the leader of a very talented and deep class. Coaches from Iowa State were in attendance at this evening’s game and they got an eye full.

The match with Excelsior Springs looked in the beginning as if it would be a hitting match between the two team’s talented and aggressive front row attackers. Pleasant Hill lead only 15-13 when, after a timeout, Ana Hanes and Reberry took over. With sophomore Hannah Joyce serving seven consecutive points, the Chicks pulled away to 22-13 lead and cruised home with the first set win, 25-14, on a game winning tip by Hanes.

After running off 11 of the last 13 points of the first set, the Chicks sprinted out of the gate in set two, notching the game’s first six points, ran the lead up to 11-2 and were never challenged in the match decided by a 25-13 final tally. 

A good teacher always leaves the student with a question when the student knows the teacher  has the answer. The impacting teacher has given the student the tools needed to solve the problem and demands the student does such.

I ask Creason again how far can this year’s team go, a final four again, maybe? He remains evasive. “I don’t know,” he says. “We will know pretty soon, won’t we.”

As the sprint to the finish line now starts, Creason likes the position for the stretch run his team has placed itself in. He is pleased but not overconfident. “We are young, but they have (now) had a whole season of varsity competition under their belt, so we are not the same team we were last August when we started practice.” Are you better, I ask? “We should  be,” he says, “If not, then I have not done much of a coaching job, have I?”

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