‘Together We Win’

 For 38 years, Carlinville volleyball coach shaped young ladies lives, on and off the court

By Eric Becker

CARLINVILLE (Dec. 28, 2017) – Coaches embark on their sport of passion not knowing what impact that they will have on their players, or how much of an impact the players will have on the coach.

Take Fran Struble for example. It’s safe to say that the impact could be felt from both sides.

The Carlinville volleyball coach recently announced her retirement from the game of volleyball that she has spent the last 38 years coaching young ladies about not only the game, but life lessons.

So after 38 years, 930 wins, 30 straight 20-win seasons, 22 regional titles, nine sectional titles, a supersectional title and a third place finish at the state tournament in 2009, 24 county titles and 24 conference championships, Struble  has retired. She gave the game of volleyball and the Carlinville Schools all she had – and in return, the ladies she coached gave her a lifetime of memories to cherish through her retirement years. But how she got to 2017 is a remarkable journey of its own.

Humble beginning

According to ihsa.org, Carlinville volleyball began in 1975 with a 5-3 record under Catherine Devitt. Two years of coaching from Linda Rudolph (31-15) and two years under Susan Albracht (51-6), the Cavaliers entered the 1980s needing a new leader.

Struble was asked to be the new coach. But right from the start, something wasn’t right physically with the new coach.

The 1980 Cavaliers finished 11-9, but the troubling part was the struggle that Struble had been dealing with from a physical standpoint.

“I have a muscle disease,” Struble said. “I coached my first fall season, and we knew there were things really wrong with me that first season. But, we didn’t know what.”

In December, 1980, Struble wound up in the hospital for two weeks as doctors tried to figure out what was going wrong with her.

“I couldn’t swallow, I couldn’t hold a phone up. I couldn’t do anything for myself,” Struble said. “I was there for two weeks for testing, and then I came home. Then I went back for another week of testing because it was just getting worse.”

Finally, doctors told Struble she could go anywhere to seek additional treatment. She did not particularly like to fly. Her husband, Wayne, had one suggestion.

“Wayne said ‘We’re going to Europe,’ and I said we are not going to Europe with every word I could muster,” Struble said. “My mother-in-law got a name of a doctor in Houston, Texas.”

Wayne would carry his wife down the stairs of their Chesterfield farm house every morning. After days of crawling back and forth, Struble could no longer swallow saliva.

“So we knew it was critical – the answer from God was, yes, you have to fly,” Struble said. “Get on the plane. We went down there and they diagnosed me.”

Struble underwent surgery in January, 1981 after being diagnosed with myastenia gravis (MG) and was in the Houston hospital for a month. Her children, Jami and Kim, were three years and 18 months old at the time.

There were years of Struble doing anything she could to get into the gym for practices, even if it meant nearly crawling into the facility.

“Many seasons, I would go into the gym, sit under the pole, lay the workout pad on the floor and I would never leave the floor,” Struble said. “I told the girls what to do and they’d come over and check the pad.”

It was also at this time that Alby – assistant coach Albert Dowland – began working with Struble.

“He said, ‘you can’t do anything physical. I don’t know anything about volleyball but let me come in,” Struble said.

She then spent time in and out of the hospital because stress is very hard on her muscle disorder. While in a Springfield hospital one of those times, her husband and doctors told Struble she shouldn’t coach anymore.

“It was absolutely God working,” Struble recounted. “He’s the one that changed his (Wayne’s) mind. Because there’s not one thing I could have done to change Wayne’s mind. But the next morning, he came in, sat on the bed and said that I thought I should coach. Then he stared at me and said ‘Where did that come from?’ And then left the room. Because he wasn’t thinking that. But God had told him that I was to coach.”

Never did Struble have a losing season. Her 1985 team won 21 games as they began playing more matches and volleyball began the ascent forward as a popular sport in Illinois.

Power of Faith

Then, in March, 1986, Struble found herself again in dire need of medical attention.

“I was really, really bad,” she recalled. “Knew I was going to the hospital again in an ambulance. I crawled down the stairs to say goodbye. I didn’t want the last goodbye to my girls to be when I was in bed. I would flop out and slide down the stairs on my back so I could sit at the bottom of the stairs when they went out the door…”

After the girls had left the house, she knew it was only a matter of time before she’d be heading back to the hospital.

Wayne had gone out and said he’d be back by lunchtime. Struble crawled across the floor into the kitchen and crawled to the sink. At the time, they had baby lambs that they were feeding via bottles.

“For some crazy reason, I thought I was going to fix bottles and go to the barn and feed the babies,” Struble said. “It didn’t make any sense. I finally got up and fell into the sink. I was laying on the sink. It was very clear – ‘Are you ready to be healed?’

Struble said “He healed me that day.”

Up to that particular point, Struble had been in and out of the hospital. Husband Wayne had been taking care of the house and the kids and the farm.

“I ran and danced and sang for an hour in my house. Non-stop,” Struble said.

Wayne came home for lunch, and Struble was sitting upstairs curling her hair. He looked at Fran and said ‘Get in bed, what are you doing? I said God just healed me. He said, no He didn’t. I said, you weren’t here – yes he did!’”

While she still had a pain in the back of her arm, one of the first symptoms she would have, it was clear why the pain was still there.

“That is to remind you that I healed you,” Struble said. “I can live with that.”

Ever since that day, Struble has done well. She has lived a normal life, continuing to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“I got a lot smarter about taking care of myself,” Struble said. “I was supposed to be bedfast in 1980 for the rest of my life. The doctor said go home and get someone to raise your children. Someone to take care of your house. You’ll never do those things again.”

But God had other plans.

All in the Family

Family and friends play such an important role for Struble throughout this journey.

Her daughters played for Struble in the mid- to late 1990s. Jami Parker is the current head coach at Edwardsville High School, where she has won 441 games over 16 years.

Her other daughter, Kim Spencer, is a pharmacist in Chicago. As players, Kim was the setter and Jami was the hitter.

There was a comical situation which occurred at a practice one day while Jami was a senior and Kim was a sophomore.

“Kim delivered the ball and Jami came down and said, ‘Kim, I need the ball out farther.’ Kim looked at Jami and said ‘You want the ball where I deliver it or do you not want to get anymore balls?” And that’s what I tell my setters. They don’t like your sets, don’t set them.”

But how has seeing her daughter progress as a coach over the years been as a mother?

“She’s so calm, collected and doesn’t get riled up,” Struble said of Parker. “She knows how to coach a team. She’s so good with her girls. Wins are awesome, but I love the most is to sit and watch her coach. Because of her patience and knowledge and all the things she’s teaching the girls. She’s teaching them about life.”

Wayne

Without her husband, perhaps none of Struble’s coaching career would have panned out the way the way it eventually did.

“He’d have to come to the gym and haul me out because I couldn’t get out myself,” Struble said.

One night after a match in Greenfield, Struble got the ultimate ride home, in the back of an undertaker’s vehicle.

“I came home one night from Greenfield in the undertaker’s vehicle because he had it there and I had wiped out on the bench,” Struble said. “So he loaded me up and put me in and took me home. I’ve had some fun experiences.”

Struble’s husband also treats the players like one of his own.

“To the girls, he’s so cool,” Struble said. “Brings them rolls on Saturday and ice cream throughout the week,” Struble said.

But without the support of Wayne, not of the past 38 years coaching would have been possible.

“His support out of all the rough times as we as a family went through was just unreal,” Struble said. “My children – those six years when it was very bad, I would not trade for anything else because we as a family grew so much, trusting God every day.”

Inside the numbers

Struble’s career of 38 years, from 1980 to 2017 spanned the U.S. presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump.

Her first of 22 regionals came in 1988, when they went 22-3. From 1988-1998, her teams lost eight or less games every year during that 11-year span. Winning 300 games on the button during that time, an average of 27 wins during those 11 years.

The 1988 and 1989 team won sectional titles, the first in school history. From 1993-2002, the Cavies won regional titles each year, including three sectional titles.

The team got on a roll again in 2006-2009, culminating in a third place finish in the state tournament in 2009 with a school record 36 wins. They won at least 31 games in each of those years.

She finished her career winning regionals in six of her last seven years, and her final team gave her a fitting sendout with her ninth sectional championship.

Win No. 930 came against Trenton Wesclin in the sectional final and was her final victory as coach. Her final game was days later against Newton in the Vandalia Supersectional.

Her final career record is 930-279, for a winning percentage of .769.  Perhaps most impressive is the 30 consecutive 20-win seasons and no losing seasons. The Cavies also won 24 county tournament titles and 24 conference championships.

Coaches, colleagues 

Perhaps the most interesting part of coaching 38 years is the number of people that one comes in contact with in one form or another.

So is the case for a couple of her current assistant coaches, Kaitie (Hicks) Hammann and Renee Young, both of whom played for Struble in the earlier part of this century.

Hammann was a setter for Struble from 2000-2006,  where Struble taught her more about the game and life in general.

“She taught me all of the technical skills – serving passing, setting, defense, reading the opponents block, etc., but she also taught me the importance of a great work ethic, being a good teammate and creating a family atmosphere.”

Having a chance to comeback and coach volleyball at her alma mater, Hammann notes the time spent with Struble has gone a long way in setting up her way of coaching.

“Just by spending countless hours with Coach, I learned so many lessons – how to teach the girls to win graciously and how to handle defeat; how to respect all opponents, but fear none; how to push yourself and your teammates, but to also have fun and be silly; and how to play simply for the love of the game,” Hammann said. “I owe so much of my abilities, both as a former player and athlete and current coach  to Coach Struble that I will never be able to repay. Winning over 900 games is an amazing feat, and I am proud to have been a part of over 100 of those wins as one of her high school players, and have been able to celebrate her 800th and 900th wins as part of her coaching staff.”

Young played for Struble from 2004-09 and coached with her from 2010-17.

“She has taught me so much not just about volleyball, but about life and how to keep pushing through the good times and the bad,” Young said. “I can’t wait to see what this next phase of life has in store for her, and she will always be welcomed back into the gym to help us keep the legacy of volleyball excellence in Carlinville she started 38 years ago.”

Carlinville athletic director Darrin DeNeve has learned a thing or two through the years from watching Struble coach.

“She shows an unbelievable amount of poise in every kind of coaching situation,” DeNeve said. “If every coach, spectator and player of school athletic teams could display even half of the poise that she does, sports would most definitely serve as the classroom that many of us hope it would be.”

Fundamentals are something that others should follow with Struble’s leadership.

“Every practice, every drill, every play, she is watching her players’ ability to execute the fundamentals, and she is there to instruct them on their fundamentals at every moment,” DeNeve said.

DeNeve’s wife Heather (Kastens) and daughter Sarah have both played on sectional winning teams, Heather on the first and Sarah on the last.

“Both feel lucky to have had Fran’s influence,” DeNeve added.

CHS principal Pat Drew also enjoyed watching her build her volleyball program to its winning culture.

“Coach Struble built a program based on mastery of skills that benefited those who played under her in their athletic as well as their personal lives,” Drew said. “Her dedication and knowledge of the sport and ability to instruct requisite skills is hard to replicate. Her success can be measured not only through wins and losses but the quality of the individual players and teams she coached during her career.”

Volleyball through the years

The uniforms have certainly changed, but what other changes has the game of volleyball gone through since the early 1980s?

Rally scoring began before the 2004 season, taking the place of the sideout form of scoring, where teams had to be serving to earn a point.

“We moved over to rally scoring, and I was one of those who said this is going to ruin the middle school game because these kids are going to be afraid to make a mistake,” Struble said. “And – no. Didn’t seem to phase them too much. It phased me more than it phased them. They just moved right into rally scoring and that was the way it was.”

The addition of the libero years later was another noticeable change.

But Struble said there was a two-setter run offense when she started coaching; now it’s down to one setter.

“When I started in 1980, it was a 4-2 offense, you ran two setters and they ran in the front row – everybody was doing it,” Struble said. “What we run now is 5-1 with one setter. People in high school don’t even run a 4-2 anymore.”

College volleyball has been playing contacting the ball waist and below.

“So you can take it off your foot and that’s now coming through the high school system,” Struble said.

Also serving has changed, as it now can be played if a serve hits the net and continues over to the opponents side.

“You use to teach them not to serve too close to the net because you didn’t want them to hit the net and bounce off,” Struble said. “Now we teach them to keep that serve as low as you can to the net, hoping that it’s going to catch the top of the net with enough pace that it will go over and score for an ace.”

The game has also changed with the adaptation of club volleyball teams during the offseason. Carlinville isn’t in a particularly strong area where there are club teams around.

“Our kids really don’t have that big opportunity to go play elsewhere,” Struble said. “Everything that they get, they get from us. So we have to work really hard that we’re keeping up with all the different techniques.”

One of changes came this year with the introduction of swing blocking.

“This year we moved to swing blocking which is totally different from stationary blocking,” Struble said. “We taught them that because I wanted to be able to have them move from high school to college.”

Struble acknowledged she never played the sport growing up although she did want to try. When she got into coaching, she read every book she could, watched every video she could, went to every clinic possible.

The athletes, themselves, are much more dynamic as well.

“The girls are much bigger, much better,” Struble said. “They understand strength training, speed training. They understand there is a need for that. Where if you said that in 1980, they would have looked at me like I was crazy.”

Former players comment

Several of Struble’s former players commented on the impact that she had on their lives, whether on the court in high school, or outside in the real world.

Annie Rhodus played for Struble for six years through the 2016 season.

“She didn’t just create a great team, but she created a family,” Rhodus said. “She not only cared about us as volleyball players, but she cared about all of us individually. I am so grateful to have been coached by her.”

Elizabeth Kelly played for Struble’s teams from 2006 through 2009.

“Coach taught me what it means to be a true competitor – not just on the court, but in life,” Kelly said. “You will not find a more fierce competitor than Coach, either on the court or in life, and you certainly will not find anyone who competes with more grace.”

Carley Kulenkamp played from 2009-2014, having graduated from CHS in 2015.

“Coach Struble prepared us not just for a game or season, but for life,” Kulenkamp said. “She pushed us to become better people, to enjoy every day, to strive for success, and above all to trust God. I can truly say that she has made a tremendous impact on my life, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to play for her.”

Kathleen Kelly played for Struble from 2009-2014, and said the respect that all had for her was something to behold.

“As a player I remember being very aware of how much respect everyone in the gym – from our team to the opponent – had for her,” K.Kelly said. “It was a respect much greater than the awe of her astounding record as a coach. It was a respect of her level-headed demeanor and her ability to develop not only players but leaders and strong young women who know that success takes a great deal of work as she showed us on the court. Although many of us did not go on to play past high school, we did go on to transfer the mentality to work hard for our successes and to accept recognition humbly, to which Coach Struble was worth more than the success itself.”

Heather (Kastens) DeNeve played from 1985-1988 and was a member of her first sectional championship team.

“She instilled and reinforced positive, can-do attitudes among her players and has always held high expectations, too,” said H.DeNeve. “Her dedication and time commitment to the sport and her teams has always been evident to those around her. I feel very fortunate to have played under Coach Struble and I feel very fortunate that my daughter Sarah has had the opportunity to play her first two years of high school volleyball under Coach Struble as well.”

Bailey Schmidt played for Struble from 2008-2013, graduating in 2014.

“Mrs. Struble is a caring and honest person, yet trained us to be both more mentally and physically tough than anyone else,” Schmidt said. “I can honestly say that she has made me a better athlete and person by coaching me and I am so lucky to have had the privilege to train under her and have her as a support system in my life. Truly some of my best memories so far are because of her.”

Camryn Walton played from 2006-2009 for Struble and was a member of the team that placed third at state.

“Coach Struble holds a very special place in my heart,” Walton said. “Her fierce passion for the sport and more importantly, the emphasis she put on the power of positivity and team bonding are lessons I will never forget. I feel myself telling stories of our team and Coach Struble often, and carry these lessons with me every day. I feel so grateful to have been coached by Coach Struble.”

Erica Suhling played in the mid-2000s for coach Struble.

“Coach Struble not only taught us how to play volleyball, she taught us the importance of teamwork,” said Suhling. “You rely on your teammates – they’re there to support you and you’re there to support them. I notice myself using the foundations of the teamwork Coach Struble instilled in us every day in my current career. I couldn’t be more grateful for that and it all started with that one simple phrase ‘Together We Win.’”

Tracey Joiner-Czajkowski played for Struble from 1990 to 1993.

“I loved the way she challenged us to play better everyday,” said Czajkowski. “She knew exactly what to say to get us to believe in ourselves and each other as a team. She had the patience of a Saint. She meant the world to us and treated us like her family. She is one of the big reasons why I entered the education field and pursued a career in coaching.”

Lindsay (Shade) Hamel played for Coach Struble from 2000 to 2006.

“Coach Struble had the incredible ability to empower me to dig deeper than I thought possible within myself to overcome adversity on the court and more importantly, in my mind,” said Hamel. “Not only did she nail every aspect of fundamentals and skill, but she taught me how crucial and effective mental attitude is on performance – something I will never forget. She has truly touched so many lives in her career and I congratulate her on her retirement. ‘Together We Win.’”

Never about the numbers

Despite all the success her teams had over 38 years, Struble remained humbled by continuing to make sure her players were ready for any situation.

Her number one rule as it was pointed out by someone at the banquet was, “Always be a lady.”

“Through all of this, I hope I had an opportunity to show the girls sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want,” Struble said. “We don’t always get what we want. It’s a good lesson for anyone to learn, but especially for teens to learn. I always try to teach them you don’t get respect, you earn respect. Because if you don’t respect somebody else they aren’t going to respect you. Don’t be obnoxious. Don’t be a jerk.”

As far as telling the team while at the banquet about her retirement plans, Struble said that it was something she had to do.

“I wanted to tell them because I wanted to be there to give them hugs. I talked to the coaches ahead but I said I’m going to do it my way because they’re my girls and I want them to hear it from me. How many people get to do what they love to do every single day? These 38 years have been a blessing in my life.”

Carlinville coach Fran Struble is shown Dec. 5 talking to the five Cavalier seniors, from left – Taylor Wills, Emma Griffith, Sydney Bates, Alyssa DeSpain and Anna Chew – after announcing she would be retiring as coach of the CHS volleyball team. Her final group of seniors helped Struble win a sectional title for a ninth time and finish in the Elite Eight of Class 2A.