Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Valle/Ste. Gene, MO

 The battle of Ste. Genevieve
History abounds in the small river town of Ste. Genevieve.  Established in 1735 by French Canadian explorers, it was the first permanent European settlement west of the Mississippi River in what is today the state of Missouri, even older than its sister city  70 miles upstream, St. Louis.

The days of the steamboats that fueled a bawdy riverfront are long gone. However, locals still clutch close to their collective historic souls the long running rivalry between the Valle Catholic High School Warriors and the Ste. Genevieve High School Dragons. We are not talking ACT scores or the National Honor Society here. No, this civil war manifests itself in the pride of both schools, its athletics prowess.

Public education in Ste. Genevieve has a rich and long history. Ste. Genevieve High School can trace it’s genealogy all the way back to 1807 when community leaders established the first school publicly charted by the Louisiana Territory. Valle High School opened in 1925.The school was named for Felix and Odile Valle, long time benefactors to the parish.

 A full house
With an enrollment of 150 students, Valle takes a David vs. Goliath pride when slugging it out with the local public school with an enrollment four times that of the private school. SGHS counters with their own claims of disadvantage in the rivalry, notably a lack of tradition and a past under-emphasis on athletics. The Dragons, in several sports, have broken through recently to grab their share of the rivalry’s bragging rights. Their boosters make the claim that the Dragons have not only caught up with the Valle athletic machine, but are in the process of surpassing the haughty catholic school proclaiming it is a new day. Valle backers counter with their tradition of success, shooing the annoying upstarts with a dismissive wave, back to where they belong, as a perpetual underling in this family feud. 

Football, as can be expected, is the big stage yearly event. This fall, the Dragons knocked off the Warriors 7-6, for their first win over their neighbors since 2011. Valle holds the record for state football championships, having been crowned 14 times. It was a big win for the emerging Dragons whose current players have grown up with the monstrous mystique of Valle football as a constant looming cloud of torment. But, not this year, their razor- thin early season win gives the Dragons the town bragging rights until next season. For the seniors on the winning side, they now hold a life-long hammer of smugness over their future spouse, boss, employee, golf buddies, in-laws and any other soul sitting in the losing sides’ bleachers. Have no doubt; this small town rivalry has meaning.

Hold nothing back
My wife I pull into Ste. Genevieve on a Monday afternoon preparing to chronicle this evening’s Dragons vs. Warriors volleyball battle. Although not matching the fervor found on the boy’s side with football, volleyball has become the major activity for girls in both schools. Both teams have strung together one strong season after another for the last decade. Not only is their annual matchup charged with an energetic atmosphere, but it will be played on both sides of the net at a high skill level by two of the better teams in the area.

I love high school rivalries. I think they bring out the best in all involved. Sports should not become routine. It should be about passion. However, the relationship between any two top-level teams who are rivals is one of complexity. School administrators are on constant vigil knowing they're one misstep away from bad blood spilling over into the educational process. Everyone I speak with in Ste. Genevieve claims this local rivalry has never crossed the line of civility, has always been a positive educational experience.

 Aggressive on both sides of net
After the school lunch break I speak first with a group of SGHS volleyball players, then make the ¼ mile drive down the hill to Valle to get their take on tonight’s matchup.

All agree it will be a spirited encounter. Dragon senior Jennifer Humbolt says that in her house the lines are clearly drawn. “My step-dad is a big Valle booster and he has been letting me have it all week,” she says. “Be he knows I can give it right back, like when we beat them this year in football.” Humbolt’s current life is interwoven with the two school’s rivalry. “By boyfriend plays football at Valle.” I asked if she heckled him after the game. “No,” she says, “he was pretty down so I didn’t say anything. But he knows I sat with our crowd and cheered for our team.”

Valle Senior Lainey Bauman says the volleyball rivalry is more personal amongst the adults than the players. “We all get along fine. We see them (SGHS players) all the time and we have all been playing club ball on the same team for years.” Bauman’s senior teammate, Grace Eftink, relates that leading up to the game both sides ignore each other. “We are fine with them but this week we don’t associate with them and they don’t with us. After the game tonight, whoever wins will get their (digs) in, but it is all in good fun.”

 Coach Fallert 
watches play
Dragon Senior Haley Grass says she and her teammates are looking to the match that will begin in 6 hours with excited anticipation. “We were talking about how we like playing the game over there,” she says. “The atmosphere is great in their gym because it so much smaller. It is really loud in there and that makes a great (environment) to play in.” Her teammate, junior Julia McKlin says it will not be just the two teams on the court competing. “Both student sections will be packed. Both schools' students really get behind the players. Ours will try to outdo theirs. It is a great atmosphere, always the most fun one we play in. Playing Valle each year is always a high point of the season.”

I ask both sides if they feel any pressure playing tonight’s high stakes game. To a player, both sides say they are ready to go and let the best team win. I ask the Valle contingent if they feel any undue outside pressure. The consensus from the Warriors is a hesitant, “yes.” "So your parents may ground you if you lose tonight?" I jokingly ask. Junior Rachel Loida tells me that will not be needed, “If we lose tonight,” she says, “I am going to ground myself.”

They all agree that you might love her deeply, but the person you never want to lose to is your sister.

 Coach Fallert
The Warriors and the Dragons may be geographically neighbors, but tonight, dependent upon which side’s colors you wear, it is time to beat those damn cocky Catholics; or it is time to put those jealous son of a guns back in their place. I am attired in a plaid Dragon green and Warrior blue shirt with equal distribution of each color. This will not be my first rivalry game.

Most in the community claim the competitive climate based on athletics is not bitter.  The two sides support each other, often as economic and social allies. Most from both sides are members of the same Catholic Church congregation.  Marriages between a Valle grad and a SGHS grad are common, splitting a family’s allegiance and at times making the choice of where to educate their offspring complicated.

The two camps may come together to sit side by side for Sunday morning worship, but tonight, they will be at  their tribal best as the Dragons and the Warriors renew what has become a hotly contested battle for local volleyball superiority.

Intentionally, they do not schedule any regular season tournaments against each other and are placed in separate classifications for postseason play. The two teams could possibly meet in the conference tournament to be held next week, but all agree that if they do, it will be anti-climactic. Tonight’s match is winner take all.

Dragons head coach Jessica Fallert finds the rivalry steeped in tradition. “I am from here,” she says. “I grew up with this rivalry.” The 2001 graduate was a Dragon herself. “I don’t think we ever beat them,” she recalls. Fallert is in her 5th season as head coach. She spent her first four years of coaching as an assistant to coach Dennis Drum.
 Support for the serve

Drum, the Dragons head coach for sixteen years, is in attendance at this evening’s game. “Isn’t this great,” Drum says about the game’s high energy atmosphere. “I have been through this a lot,” the retired coach says, “and it never gets old. It is always a big positive for not only the kids, but the community as a whole. We don’t ever want to lose what you see here tonight.”

Often troubled former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson once announced at a post-fight interview, after losing his crown to Lennox Lewis, that it was time for him to “fade into Bolivian.” Tyson’s most famous quote, though, was when he told the world how he fueled his pre-fight rage, “I’m just ferocious. I want your heart. I want to eat his children.” There are no cannibalistic intentions on either side of this local rivalry. But, I can sense, neither side would hesitate to grab the last piece of barbeque at the town picnic, leaving the other standing in line with an empty plate.


 Former Coach Dennis Drum
The Ste. Genevieve Dragons are having another strong season, entering tonight’s match with a 12-7-4 record. Fallert’s teams have put together solid records in each of her first four seasons. Fallert is viewed in area volleyball circles as a young and upcoming talented coach who has, to this point, slayed the dragon of returning to her small hometown to coach.  Unfortunately, SGHS has been sent each year to the St. Louis area for the district tournament, eliminated all four years by teams who go on to claim the state title. This year’s district assignment is kinder. “We got moved south this year,” the coach says. “There are some good teams in our new district but no one I don’t feel we can compete with.”

The Valle Warriors are having a rare down season. Always state contenders, this year they enter the stretch run of the season with a 16-9 record, pretty solid for most school's, but the bar at Valle is set pretty high. Head Coach Nancy Fischer is unconcerned and says her club is rounding into shape, jockeying for position to make a strong postseason run. “We have so many injuries this year,” she states.  “We get one back and another goes out. We will have a new lineup again tonight. Still, I think this team has not played its best, yet. No pressure on us now, I have told the girls. We are just going to play loose and see what happens.”

Under the 36 year reign of Coach Nancy Fischer, Valle has become a small school volleyball juggernaut. With 700 wins on her resume, she shows no sign of slowing down. A 1979 graduate of Valle, Fischer embodies all the characteristics that personify the fierce pride that radiates throughout Valle High School: confidence, energy, consistency, loyalty and patience.  She has led the Warriors to 8 state final fours. She says the state hand she now holds is composed of deuces wild. “We have been first twice, runner-up twice, third place twice and fourth twice,” she laughs. In 2017 the Warriors finished the year at 33-2-4, taking third at state. Spring graduation hit Valle hard.

 Big time block
Fischer was fortuitously born at just the right time for a girl who was not content with checking her athletic ambitions at the school house door. She belongs to the first wave of girls who have benefitted from the landmark federal legislation, Title IX. The 1972 law stated that "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." Until 1972, it was perfectly legal to discriminate in any education program against someone based solely on gender. Title IX has been to female athletes what the 1964 Civil Rights Act has been for African-Americans. Neither would create instant equality, both movements, extremely unpopular with the public at the time of their creation, would have long years of battle ahead to see legitimate change. However, both did put federal law on the side of inclusion.

Fischer says if she had been born a decade earlier, a 1969 grad of Valle instead of a 1979 one, her life would have been much different. “Oh no, no way would I have had the opportunities I have had. We owe those who pushed for girls sports a lot of thanks. The girls today have no idea what it was like back then. They don’t know because their mothers never knew either, and I have coached a lot of mothers and daughters here, they never had to fight for equal opportunity.”

Fischer is correct, a great load of gratitude is owed by today’s female athletes and coaches to those 1972 visionaries on the front line of a revolution championing a society changing movement. Many are today passing from the coaching landscape. Many paid dearly for their activism. Their causes led to the upsetting of the status quo and were not well received by the powers of the time. Despite the personal and professional peril they placed themselves in; they lobbied loud and hard for equality for the nation’s female athletes.
 Intense action in set 3

Our educational institutions have never been bastions of democracy. Without the militancy of these trailblazers, the first wave of beneficiaries, like Fischer, would not have had the opportunities that have shaped not only their lives, but also  the succeeding generations of girls they today mentor as coaches.

Title IX at its inception sent tidal waves of fear through the established men’s athletic programs, in particular, football. "A girl just can't do those things and still be a lady," one of the nation’s most well-read sportswriters wrote in a 1972 newspaper column. Other law makers were gallantly progressive in their often unpopular support of the intent of the law. History has now labeled them as heroes. Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana defended and supported the law as simple fairness and equal opportunity. "I do not read this as requiring integration of dormitories between the sexes, nor do I feel it mandates the desegregation of football fields. What we are trying to do is provide equal access for women and men students to the educational process and the extracurricular activities in a school," he told a suspect nation.

 Well placed kill
Rumors of the demise this left wing radical law would cast on a society still reeling from the social chaos of the 1960’s spread terror through grass roots America, especially in small towns. I recall the rumor that went through my small Missouri high school as we broke for Christmas in 1973, that when we returned in January, because of Title IX, all PE classes would be co-ed and so would the locker rooms. Of course, we know now, much to the chagrin of high school boys everywhere; that never happened.

“We need to always make sure our female athletes realize how lucky they are, that it was not always like it is now, the opportunities that girls today take for granted. A lot of sacrifice laid the ground for what we have now and we are all better because of it,” Fischer states.

Neither of this evening’s head coaches had the teaching profession as their first choice of occupation when they entered college.
Coach Fischer in warmups

Fallert graduated from college with certification as an athletic trainer. She got her master’s degree at Columbus State University in Georgia. During her two year stay in grad school she served as the athletic trainer at a local high school. With her masters’ degree in hand she moved back to the St. Louis area taking a trainer’s job at St. Charles High School, 90 miles from her Ste. Genevieve roots. “I wanted to get back closer to home. I never thought much about teaching and coaching until I went to St. Charles,” she remembers. “The second year I was there the freshman (volleyball) coach came down with cancer and since I had a volleyball background, I volunteered to help out. I decided then that teaching is what I wanted to do for a living. I was hired the next year here at Ste. Gen and I have never regretted it. I learned a lot from Coach (Dennis) Drum as his assistant. I have also found Nancy (Coach Fisher) over at Valle to be a great help and resource.”

Nancy Fischer was put on this earth to coach volleyball at Valle High School. She is a perfect fit. Yet her long and successful career at Valle may have never come to be without what seemed at the time to be mere passing comments.

“I planned on going to medical school,” she relates to me as we sit in her just vacated Chemistry Lab 30 minutes before her 3:00 shift change when the 36 year veteran teacher/coach will trade her lab coat for her coaching whistle.

“When I was in high school, I played basketball and ran track,” she recalls. “No volleyball,” I ask with a raised eyebrow. “I was the manager for the volleyball team,” says with a laugh. “I went to Southeast Missouri State,” she says of the school located one hour south of Ste. Genevieve in Cape Girardeau. “I played field hockey. I wanted to be involved in sports and at the time, at that place, it was the only choice I saw available.”

 Father Nemeth
During her four years in undergraduate studies her future was destined by two life changing advisements, both coming as sudden and unexpected bolts of lightning from the sky – true Paul on the Road to Damascus life changing epiphanies.

“I really wanted to coach,” Fischer tells me. “I knew that from a young age. But, I let a school official my senior year (of high school) talk me out of it. I was basically told I was too smart to waste my time as a teacher. I needed to do something impacting with my life, like go to med school. I listened. Then, the summer after my second year in college, I was home playing softball and I broke my wrist. When I went back to college I still had the cast on and my advisor saw it and said, ‘you either need to be a doctor or be a jock. Make up your mind.” ’

Fischer says she knew the comment was laced with sarcasm and a sublime academic put down of athletes. Regardless of the intent, she took his arrogant advice and changed her major to Education with an emphasis on Biology and Chemistry. A remark meant in sarcastic jest turned out to be sage wisdom. “Best choice I ever made.” Now, 38 years later, she says, “The man will never know how much his off the cuff remark has molded my life.”

As Fischer’s college graduation approached, her anxiety rose exponentially with each passing day. “I was in with a group of eight others who had the same degree as me and by graduation everyone but me had a job. I applied everywhere and got nowhere. One school even sent me a rejection letter on a post card,” she says. “Today, it sounds funny, but at the time I was getting desperate. I wish I had kept that post card.”

 Coach Fischer
Rejected time and time again, Fischer finally found not one, but, two suitors. “I interviewed on Thursday at North County High School (located in nearby Desloge, MO) and they offered me the job. They wanted an answer by Monday afternoon. That Friday we had a track meet at Farmington. I was student teaching at Farmington and helping coach the track team. Valle was at the same meet that day and their Athletic Director told me that the Valle job was now open and I should apply.”

Fischer’s job search had suddenly gone from famine to feast and she needed to quickly make a decision. “All that weekend I thought about it and I told my Mom Monday morning that I was going to take the job at North County. I was going to call that afternoon and accept.”

“That Monday morning at school I ran into Coach (Becky) Noble. She was a well-established coach in the area and was the track coach at Farmington. Now, this is where if gets weird,” Fischer says. “I always worked with Coach in the afternoon after school with track, but I had never seen her before school, ever, until that morning. She asked me what I was going to do and I told her I was going to take the North County job and turn down Valle. She said, ‘I think that would be a mistake.’ That is all she said and (then) she turned and walked away. Those few words from her instantly changed my mind. I changed my future plans that fast. I called Valle and accepted the job. At 22 years of age (four years removed from the school’s student body) I was the head coach of volleyball, girls’ basketball and girls’track, all the girls’ sports Valle (at the time) offered. If I had not run into Coach Noble by chance that morning, my life would have taken a much different path.”

Have you ever thought about the road not taken, I ask? “Never,” Fischer answered without hesitation. ‘My mom asked me once when I was in my 30’s if I had ever regretted the decision not to go into medicine? I immediately said no. I did not even have to think about it. It is probably the only time I have ever even thought of my decision. I have never looked back. I am where I need to be and I get up every morning excited about school and thankful for those two chance encounters  that changed my life.” And, I would add, changed the lives of two generation of Valle Warriors who have had the good fortune to be the recipients of her guidance.


 The Anvil
Coach Fischer gave me two pieces of advice as we parted at 3 pm: Go to the Anvil on the town courthouse square for dinner, the onion rings are worth dying for, she assured me, and be at the gym by the start of the freshman gam at 5 pm, if I wanted a seat for the 7:30 varsity match. The coach was dead on, accurate on both.

We arrive in time for the freshman game at 5 pm. The Junior Varsity game has a start time of 6:30. The gym is loud and full. The visitors will claim wins in both of the preliminary matches, but both are close and go three sets. From the first serve in the freshman battle until the ball hits the floor for match point in the varsity tilt, the fans are treated to over 4 ½ hours of spirited play.

In between the varsity and JV match,Valle holds a dedication for its newly remodeled gym foyer where full trophy cases are home to the Warriors numerous state championship awards. Fr. Edward Nemeth is the head of both the Valle school and the parish. He has been on the job for one year and is widely given credit for jump starting the parish and the school’s finances. Coach Fischer tells me the priest  has built a reputation of openness and communication within the community.  He addresses the crowd while blessing the remodeled foyer. He makes a point of welcoming, “our neighbors from up the hill.”

The raucous atmosphere I was promised that afternoon by the players from both teams lived up to the pre-game hype. Both student sections were filled to overflow, even for the freshman game. 

Enthusiasm abound
The Dragon cheer contingent was big, loud and edgy. They came prepared and remained focused with their support the entire evening. There was more competition this night besides just on the court. Both sections were in an obvious duel with each other. 

This was a match that from the first had the feel of one that would go down to the wire to determine the night’s winner. It sure did.

 Not this time
Valle started fast from the gate, grabbing a 9-3 lead in game 1. Ste. Genevieve rallied, taking their first lead at 15-14. The remainder of the opening set was back and forth with Valle rallying from a 17-22 deficit to 23-24 on a double block by Valle freshman Ella Bertram and senior Lainey Bauman. But not to be denied, a kill by Dragon sophomore Sydney Bumgardaner sealed the visitor’s win, 25-23.

The second set was also played to a mere standstill. The score was tied 9 times before the Dragons grabbed their first lead of the game, 22-21. Valle secured back the ebbing momentum and took the second round, on a Dragon miss hit, 25-23.

The rubber set, as the first two, was a back and forth struggle for both teams. Much like two exhausted heavyweight boxers  staggering into the final round, both teams seemed to be lying back, conserving energy. Valle jumped to a 12-9 lead, but had to bemoaning a lost opportunity. The Warriors were their own worst enemy as five of the Dragons first nine points had come on service errors. Down 21-24, Coach Fischer called time out to rally her team from the brink of a loss. The Warriors came out of the huddle invigorated and staved off three match point Dragon opportunities, tying the deciding set at 24-24 and fittingly created the necessity of extra play. The last momentum swing, however, went the way of the green jerseys, securing the Ste. Genevieve win with two aggressive attacks, 26-24.


 No losers, tonight
After the gym had emptied and quiet sanity had returned, Coach Fischer, who had just seen her team drop a close and emotionally draining volleyball match and faced an early starting, full day tomorrow of teaching Chemistry and Physics, graciously thanked me for attending. “I hope you saw what makes this community special,” she said.

I did. 

In the future, when I think of this evening, I will not remember the play on the court, perhaps even letting time erase from my mind the final winner. What will be etched in my long term memory will be the uplifting holistic experience. I will smile when recalling the singing of the Star Spangled Banner by the Valle student led “unofficial choir.” I will envision Chief Touchdown leading the Valle faithful in cheers. I will appreciate the no shortcuts job a young coach is doing so well in building a culture of success at Ste. Genevieve High School.  

 Post game congratulations
“I hope you witnessed what our kids are fortunate to have modeled for them every day by the adults around them as well as by their fellow students,” Fischer summarizes for me. “What we stand for here is an unparalleled work ethic, a general concern for others, and a desire to be all that God is calling us to be.”

Vince Lombardi is acclaimed by many to be the greatest coach in football history. The long time Green Bay Packers leader has the Super Bowl trophy named after him. He is widely remembered for his most famous quote, “Winning is not everything, it is the only thing.” If the crusty old gridiron coach had been in attendance at tonight’s game, he would have softened his tone with admiration for the effort on both sides. Tonight, there were no losers.