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Coaching for Their Lives

March 2014 | by Craig DeVrieze

The pace of St. Ambrose men's volleyball practice has ratcheted up two notches, and occasionally three, this year. Balls are spiked with more vigor. The standard practice chatter comes with more volume and carries more of an edge.

The players who practice best, who practice hardest, will start the next contest. This is a "pay-to-play" approach, and the only currency accepted is sweat equity.

"It has brought more life to our practices because the upperclassmen can't coast," eighth-year head coach Bill Gleeson '05, '10 MBA said of the newest wrinkle he has injected into the program. "And it just makes sense if you really want to get better. We practice a lot more often than we play games."

Gleeson is one of several bright young program leaders adding fresh ideas and balance to a St. Ambrose roster of coaches that also boasts the benefit of substantial experience.

Athletic director and men's basketball coach Ray Shovlain '79, '82 MBA, men's golf coach Jeff Griebel '76, women's volleyball coach Bruce Billingsley and men's baseball coach Jim Callahan '92 bring the advantage of nearly a century of combined on-the-job experience. They offer counsel to 14 other coaches whose combined tenures at St. Ambrose total a year shy of 80.

In turn, younger coaches such as Gleeson, women's basketball head coach Krista Van Hauen and head football coach Mike Magistrelli offer fresh perspectives and a new brand of energy.

At the core of every coach's concern is the student-athlete, and each team leader is as keenly focused on developing good people as he or she is on building winning programs.

Recruits and, particularly, their parents tend to value the former ahead of the latter, said Van Hauen. "That's one of our drawing cards-we're going to get your daughter a great education," she said.

A four-year Fighting Bees starter who still ranks fourth on the school's career kills chart, Gleeson is ever ready to learn on the job-this year's heavier emphasis on practice performance is proof of that.

Among the earliest lessons he absorbed was that, even for collegiate volleyball players, life doesn't come with a net.

"My first couple of years, I was just trying to prepare guys to be good players and not really helping them prepare for life after college," he said. "As I developed on the job, I learned it was best for me, our program and the traditions we want to develop to do our best to help them graduate, be employable and successful."

Gleeson encourages his players to create life plans in 5-, 10- and 15-year increments. He points them to the St. Ambrose Career Center to investigate internships, gain resume-building skills and learn the many ways they can build a future while enjoying their student-athlete experience.

"Volleyball is an activity," he said. "It's really not what they are here for, so I have to make sure they have their academics and their futures at the forefront."

It is not that athletic success doesn't matter. Gleeson's Bees already have won nearly 200 games in his young career, twice finishing as national runners-up. He was national coach of the year in 2011.

The other members of the SAU staff of coaches are equally successful. Among them:

  • Billingsley, who also coached the men's volleyball squad for several seasons, has won more than 500 games in his career, coached eight All-Americans and led Bees squads to nine league titles and four national tournaments.
  • Callahan's baseball crews have featured 15 All-American players, won nine league titles and brought home second- and third-place trophies from the NAIA World Series.
  • Griebel is a 19-time Region IV coach of the year and has led squads to the NAIA Nationals 23 times while coaching eight first-team All-Americans.
  • Jon Mannall's women's soccer teams have won the conference five out of the past six years and advanced to the national tournament three times. 
  • Felicia Miles' competitive co-ed cheerleading squad has won multiple national trophies, and this year boasts what is believed to be the largest cheerleading roster in the history of the NAIA.
  • Danelle Stanger '06 led the women's dance team to the first national team championship in school history in 2012.
  • Shovlain is closing in on 600 career wins and has led his Bees to 10 national tourney appearances, and four Sweet 16 finishes.

Magistrelli's gridders, meanwhile, have been to the NAIA playoffs five times in his seven seasons. He is proudest, however, of the way his football players have embraced the Road to Rome off-season program. The intra-squad competition allows groups of teammates to gain practice privileges based on service projects and other values-based initiatives.

"There is a certain amount of success that is measured by wins and losses," Magistrelli said. "But I also think we are in the business of developing young men and preparing them for graduation and life after football-being a father, a husband, a provider.

"I think you can do both-prepare them to be athletes on the field, but also to carry a lot of character that will be very valuable in their adult lives."

Building character is the essence of requirements put in place by Athletic Director Shovlain, who has made service projects and attendance at twice yearly leadership lectures requirements for every SAU student-athlete.

On the first day of holiday break this past December, for instance, Shovlain and every member of a Fighting Bees basketball team that had lost a heated contest the night before got out of bed early to assemble food baskets for the needy.

That same Saturday afternoon, they tipped off another game.

"Was I thrilled about getting up at 6 a.m. after we lost? Not really," Shovlain said. "And I know my players and coaches weren't either. But that's not the discussion. That reflects what we're trying to do. That's a life lesson."

"If you ask our alumni about their time here, there might be one or two athletic memories," Shovlain added. "Most will remember the overall experience and that Mike Magistrelli or Bill Gleeson or Krista Van Hauen emphasized, ‘Here is what you want to be.'

"We compete, but the other lessons are more valuable."


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