“We’re Number Two!”

I have been coaching “officially” since 1979, but my friends would tell you that I started long before my terry cloth Polo Shirt with “Utah State University Assistant Track Coach” was handed to me. My neighbor, Janet Styles, who just died a few weeks ago, used to call me “The Pied Piper” as the neighborhood kids would show up to play catch or shag the discus or whatever we needed to do.

In these years, I have some memories of great successes and many, many failures. Certainly, watching Paul Northway just get better by the day in his Sophomore year was a joy to witness. He literally doubled his competition in several meets…and sometimes they were upperclassmen. My “Dirty Thirteen” Junior Varsity team in football with no linebackers or running backs (literally, we didn’t bring any with us!) used to dominate anyone in our path. And, perhaps the greatest moment of my life, both of my daughters were throwing in the state track meet in the discus together. This was the time when Kelly “marched out” with her discus and made the whole crowd chuckle and both came away All-State. I was a chocolate mess, of course.

There is a million memories, of course. But, they all stand clumped in a pile next to the “best” coaching of my career: SFX II’s Volleyball Team. I was sitting in my office at Juan Diego Catholic High School and the phone rang. I did my standard “Office of Strength, Coach Dan John Speaking!” It was my daughter, Lindsay, in tears. They had too many kids at Saint Francis Xavier’s volleyball team and “no one is going to get to play,” because…because…

“Dad, we need a coach.”

My mind sifted quickly to “Hmmm, who is dumb enough to take this job?” Lindsay asked again, “Dad, we need a coach.”

Ah. That means “me.” It means “Dad, get over here and coach us.”

Now, don’t take any of the following negative or mean, but when the teams were split, I got Lindsay. That was nice. I also got the two shortest boys in the school, Sal and Carlos (fine young men!, but really, really short), a few girls who cried often, and Jasmine Yu, who tragically passed away recently and was about to have a heart transplant at the time. This was a great group of kids, fine people, wonderful to have around…not a Volleyball team!!!

So, I hopped in the car immediately after school and discovered that I was “Late.” Well, I had to drive twenty-five minutes to get to SFX and practice started after their school ended. For the record, I am not sure I ever made it “on time.” I’m good, but I can’t bi-locate. Yet.

My TA at the time was an injured volleyball player. My knowledge of the game was zero. So, I asked her “my question:” “What are the three keys to winning in a volleyball game?” We worked it out to this:
1. Get the serve OVER and IN!
2. Protect the Middle.
3. Play as a team.

So, there you go: my template for winning. We didn’t worry about close calls on the sidelines or back lines, we protected the middle. I also noticed that when kids from the other teams tried to save those close ones, it usually ended up in the stands. During games, if a ball fell in the middle, I took a time out and asked what happened. Often, Carlos would say: “Number Three.” “Ah, good. Well, let’s just do what we do.” I might have been thinking that it was something else, but I would caution the good coach against ever disagreeing with an athlete’s laser vision.

Soon, these Bad News Bears (SFX II) and their completely lost coach began winning. I didn’t always understand the games or the rules (like this referee signal with the hand cupping the air and pushing up) nor did I understand why so many of the parents insisted on bring carb drinks, fruit, ice cream and enough water to sail one for, at most, an hour long game, but we were winning!

I didn’t understand all the cheers that the teams had after every huddle, but our kids wanted a chant. From somewhere, we came up with:

“We’re NUMBER TWO!” In the beginning, it was just a joke, but soon we discovered the power in this shout. For one thing, the other teams NEVER understood the cheer. It remains one of the most defining moments in my coaching career: if you can find your “issue,” label it and laugh at it, it tends to become a strength. If you are nervous at the state track meet and the crazy official says “March out to the discus ring,” well, march on out. If your team is called “Number Two,” own it.

On the weekend of the championship, I was away. I had been invited to a Crossfit function in Colorado Springs and I went. The kids were deflated, but my wife, Tiffini, stepped up to take care of the team. Throughout the day, I would run to the phone and check up. “We won.” Next call: “We won.” This kept going on all day long. This team of kids who didn’t play Club Volleyball and their parents who never had “a better idea” kept beating the teams with all the extras.

In a tournament of probably 24 teams, we ended up in the final mix taking home the Third Place trophy. This group of kids taught me that the key to coaching is focusing on whatever you think you need to focus on! It can be basic or fancy, maybe even wrong, but if the coach has the courage to stick with the plan, success can come.

Of all the things in my life that surprise me, and honestly there are few, the one that amazes me the most is the fact that my two daughters loved volleyball before high school. It was a rare summer day when our backyard wasn’t filled with girls playing on our court. I hooked the net to a tree, so every year, one side got taller. I also have a great memory of “no shags,” when all the girls fell to the ground when a ball went over the fence. The last standing had to get the ball. I’m still shocked to think that both girls had “less than optimal” high school experiences. I’m still unpacking the reasons for this in my head.

So, what did I learn from this wonderful group of kids?

The lessons?
1. Ask around. Someone has done whatever you are trying to do. Ask.
2. I love the idea of “three” things, by the way, as it always seems to work.
3. Focus on what you say you are going to focus on.
4. Poke a little fun at the problems. I think it helps to say “hey, here is what I am worried about,” poke it a bit, laugh at it, hold it in your hand, and watch it shrink away in shame.
5. “Winning” is not always about records and first place.

Four years later, Lindsay quit the volleyball team. I don’t think the other kids on the team played sports in high school and, sadly, Jasmine struggled throughout high school with physical issues. Yet, each and every time I see the old team, we continue to laugh and enjoy these great memories. I continued to coach Lindsay in the throws and now she is a hammer thrower for the University of Utah. Her senior year she won the state championship in the shot put.

This is shot of her hearing her mark.
Instead of “marching out,” she just left the field. (I’m still surprised she wasn’t arrested at BYU for having a free thought!)
Sometimes, number two becomes number one!

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