Fall in Texas means the return of high school football. To some, Friday nights in the football stadium are as important as Sunday mornings in church. However, any sports enthusiast who has ever raised a daughter is probably aware there’s another sport happening on most Friday nights as well – and it takes place in the comfort of an air-conditioned gym.
Postcards spent a day with one of our area volleyball coaches. Trinity is part of our Piney Woods area, and we thought it was time for us to get to know some folks there a little better. Coach Edgar Vander Stucken readily agreed to let us tag along with him to get a look at what a Friday in the fall looks like for him.
7:30 a.m. – “Coach Van” arrives at school. Fridays are the day he gets to have a “late” start, because Tuesday through Thursday he has mandatory daily volleyball practice from 6:30 – 7:30 a.m. with his 7th and 8th graders.
8:00 a.m. – The school day begins. From now until 1:00 p.m., Coach Van will teach five class periods of Texas History at Trinity Middle School. With the exception of a 30-minute break for lunch, he takes these 7th graders on a year-long journey to learn about their home state. “We start the year with Texas geography, which covers everything from the animals of Texas to the lakes and rivers, the Gulf of Mexico, different city populations and how demographics are calculated. Over the next few weeks, we will move into Indian tribes of Texas; then we’ll go into the pre-history, kind of Neanderthal man timeframe. After that, we move into the modern day history people tend to associate with Texas. By Christmas, we’ll be into the battle of the Alamo, battle of Gonzales, the Goliad Massacre, and the battle of San Jacinto. That pretty well wraps up our first half of the school year.”
According to Coach Van, Texas History is a unique class. It’s required for students, and there are high standards in the teaching requirements, but students are not subjected to a standardized test over the course. Because of that, he has the ability to discuss kids’ stories and their experiences. “For example, our kids hunt, fish, and spend a lot of time on the lake. They raise animals and are very outdoor-oriented, so our kids can relate when you tell them about Indians having a specific type of tool or weapon. Kids will tell you stories like, ‘My dad and I made one of those one time. We didn’t try to kill a deer with it, but we made one of those.’ A couple of years ago, there was a father and son who would chip their own arrowheads. It’s those type things that make history come alive to kids. We use maps on the walls for documenting where kids go. If they go on a family vacation to the Big Bend or the Alamo, they will bring in a photo, and we’ll tape it to the map. We deal a lot with life experiences. For example, the kid that goes to the Alamo—we’re able to talk about the holes he saw and put his finger in. When he realizes those are actual bullet holes from 1836, it’s like ‘Wow!’ It’s just neat to relay that, because they know more than they think they do.”
12:55 p.m. – Coach Van’s conference period begins. We spend some time discussing the morning’s lessons, as well as planning for the remainder of the day.
1:10 p.m. – We head to the gym to get ready for tonight’s game. As we walk in, Coach grabs a dust mop, then grins and says, “I have the best coaches working with me – they already set up the net!” Coach Van is the girls athletics coordinator for Trinity, in addition to serving as the head volleyball coach. As he pushes the dust mop and cleans the court, he shares that over the last three seasons in girls athletics, the volleyball record has improved, the softball team has been to two straight state playoffs, and they have just hired a new girls basketball coach. “Our girls have to focus on their academics. That is THE most important part of our athletic program. Next they have to focus on their skills; if you don’t have skills, you can’t win. The third thing is we have to have multi-sport athletes. We don’t have many girls focusing on just one thing. 85% of our athletes in this school are multi-sport. If they are not multi-sport, they are probably participating in something like band, dance, cheer, or some sort of UIL academic event. They are busy.”
1:18 p.m. – Time to add the stand for the “up” referee to climb onto for tonight’s game. We asked Coach if he always wanted to teach and coach, and found out he actually began his career in the newspaper business. He started as a stringer covering high school sports, then moved up to a sportswriter position, followed by sports editor and photographer. He won several Texas High School Sportswriter Association awards over the years for his photography. (Great! No pressure THERE, we thought!) “I was blessed to cover every UIL State Championship of the teams in my sports area of the Gulf Coast, from cross country to football to basketball to volleyball, all the way to tennis and golf. One day I was covering an event, and a principal came up to me and said, ‘I’ve seen you on the sidelines of every kind of sporting event over the last few years. Have you ever thought about getting into teaching and coaching?’ Long story short, my wife and I talked about it. We were expecting our second child, and I wanted more family time than newspaper could provide, so I decided to change professions. It was not only a good professional move, but a good personal move. We have three daughters, and I have an incredibly supportive wife who makes everything I do possible.”
1:29 p.m. – The antennae on the net need to be lined up with the boundary lines on the court. As he’s doing that, we asked Coach Van about his favorite part of his job. “Our job isn’t just about the Xs and the Os, the wins and the losses. Character is lacking in so many people these days, and that’s our starting point. We not only teach skills, we teach character. We practice hard, we pray hard, and we play hard. We make no bones about it, we pray before every game. We give thanks for our wins, and we don’t like to lose, but we know God comes first. I think every one of these young ladies will tell you there have to be some priorities in life and, if you don’t put God first, nothing else will fall into place. It’s just a matter of teaching these girls the right way to do things. One day, these young ladies are going to be employees, wives, mothers. We want them to be the best they can be.”
1:45 p.m. – Bell sounds marking the end of 6th period. Coach finishes setting up the chairs and putting the Tiger mascot in place for tonight’s varsity match.
1:50 p.m. – 7th period – This is normally his high school athletics period and time for his varsity team, but today there will be a mandatory team meeting to address player character. During this meeting, it’s obvious how much Coach Van cares about team unity and these girls as individuals first.
2:28 p.m. – The varsity team heads to the gym to get a few serves in prior to tonight’s game.
2:42 p.m. – 8th period – middle school athletics – Coach Van and Assistant Coach TTione Currie work with the 7th and 8th grade girls on specific skills – today, it’s learning how to hit cross court and push the ball to the back of the court.
3:35 p.m. – Coach Van heads back to his room to print out rosters and work on rotations. “Normally, we have all that done, and I can coach them with my eyes closed; but, we’ve had a couple of disciplinary issues today that require me to rework the team plan for tonight. That’s a life lesson for all of us. Life throws you curve balls, and you gotta learn how to hit ‘em.”
3:45 p.m. – Varsity girls are back in the gym, dressed out, and ready to start warm-ups. The Lady Bulldogs from New Waverly, tonight’s opponents, have arrived as well. This is the first district match for the Lady Tigers and promises to be a tough game.
4:30 p.m. – The Lady Bulldogs win the match in three straight sets. Excellent playing was seen on both sides, and the Lady Tigers went down fighting hard. Coach Van expected no less. Teams in Trinity’s district have played in four out of the last five state championship games.
5:35 p.m. – After the team wrap-up, we catch up with two of the team’s players. One is senior Damar Green, who played volleyball her freshman year, then concentrated on basketball. Her mom convinced her to try out this year, and she had an amazing couple of plays tonight. We asked her, as a senior and leader on the team, what life lessons volleyball has taught her. “We have to work together as one. There’s not one specific person that will dominate. It also helps younger girls coming up to show them the importance of working together. These girls are so awesome. We’ve been friends since middle school, and you have to know your strengths and weaknesses. You can depend on your teammate to pick up and help where you are weak. I’ve learned that from this team.”
The other player we visit with is junior Brittani Vander Stucken or “Van” as she is known. When asked what it’s like being coached by her dad, she replied, “We have a great relationship. I’ve been a coach’s kid ever since I can remember. It is harder, and there’s a lot more pressure. I feel I have to prove myself and show I have a right to be here.”
5:45 p.m. – The JV game begins, and Coach Van is watching the players on Assistant Coach Katherine Ault’s team to see if anyone’s ready to bring up to varsity.
6:48 p.m. – The JV Lady Tigers have a great game and walk away as tonight’s winners.
7:00 p.m. – Coach Van is almost ready to call it a day, but first comes cleanup and breakdown of the net, scoring table, and chairs. All in all, it’s been a long, but satisfying day for the man who didn’t plan to be a teacher and a coach. He’s proven there’s more than one way to be a winner.