SHENANDOAH, Iowa — Most smiled, and some cried, when it was all over.
Both were predictable on a night like this.
Shenandoah paid tribute to coach Chad Van Houten Thursday before overcoming a sluggish first set to beat Denison-Schleswig 16-25, 25-12, 25-16, 25-17 in its first match of the season.
The Fillies (1-0) wore special Team Van Houten warmup shirts, designed for the opener. Their uniform tops included a memorial patch with the late coach’s initials near the right shoulder.
Van Houten died in an auto accident on the afternoon of July 16. His car collided head-on with another at the crest of a hill on a road outside of Shenandoah. He was 45.
His third team was to scrimmage at its school with others from the area later that night. Instead, the Fillies met in the gymnasium to begin mourning the loss of their beloved coach.
“It didn’t feel real at first,” senior Emma Christensen said. “An hour and a half before the accident, we had received a text saying how excited he was for the season to get started.”
Van Houten’s team sat together at his funeral that following Sunday in the same gym they played in Thursday. Filled with family and friends of the coach, there wasn’t an empty seat that day.
Athletic director Bob Sweeney spoke of Van Houten that afternoon, calling it hard, humbling and an honor to share memories of a colleague and friend. He also had to come up with a game plan to find leaders for the volleyball program this fall. The season was quickly approaching.
“Obviously, it’s the toughest thing I’ve ever been through from an administrative standpoint,” he said. “The sad part of any crisis or tragedy is that there’s business that has to be tended to.”
Sweeney said he wasn’t sure what his options were at that point. He did, however, know that whatever decisions he made needed to be done on an interim basis, given the situation.
Girls track coach Jon Skillern, a math teacher, offered to help out. He had been Shenandoah’s varsity volleyball coach through 2004 and had 17 years in the sport. His daughter Darby is a junior on the team.
“I told Mr. Sweeney that whatever he decided was fine, but I would do whatever he needed for the volleyball program,” he said. “We talked about the fact that whoever stepped in needed to make it as easy of a transition as possible, that this was Chad’s team. The girls have been through enough turmoil. ... Nobody should have to go through this.”
Skillern is the head coach for this season. Shannon Gilbert, who coached the Fillies from 2005-10, is his assistant. Toni Comstock and Jeana Hogue also remain on the staff.
“On a good coaching staff, you have people that step forward and are willing to do what needs to be done for the good of the team,” Sweeney said. “We were blessed with coaches that were willing to do that. We put together a positive staff to coach Chad’s third team.”
Skillern said the coaches have kept things as similar for the players as possible, even having the upperclassmen teach them the terminology Van Houten had been using for plays.
“We all get along with him. That really helps the whole situation,” Christensen said. “He’s there for us. He’s still sticking to what coach Van Houten wanted for us, and that really helps in all aspects.”
Skillern said he’s enjoyed being with the players, although he wishes things were different.
“I would rather be watching from the stands and watching Chad do his thing,” he said.
An entire gym of fans Thursday night was wishing the same thing.
Christensen said she’s gone through a roller coaster of emotions in the past few weeks. She knows her teammates have felt the same way. They’ll play on in honor of their coach.
“We know that he would want us to go on and just keep playing our hearts out. So that’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “It’s kind of an honor to get to play in remembrance of him. I don’t feel under pressure at all. We’re all just going to enjoy the season.”
Thursday night was only the beginning for the Fillies. Like most other teams, they will go through the usual ups and downs of a volleyball season. They’ve already been through worse.
Christensen said they are stronger because of it.
“I’m just so proud of all my teammates,” she said. “Being this young and having to face losing a coach is definitely something that is very difficult. We’re all much stronger young ladies than anyone could expect us to be, I feel.”
As the team’s lone senior, Christensen came up with the idea for the shirts the Fillies will wear prior to their matches this season. With the help of Skillern and a teammate’s mother, the final design is both a fitting tribute to a coach and an inspiration for his team.
On the front is a volleyball with the words “Coach Chad” in it. The ball is wearing sunglasses as if on the top of its head, a look very familiar to those who knew Van Houten. On the back is a five-line adaptation of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament of the Bible. It begins with “A time for everything” and ends with “It’s Time to Play Volleyball!”
Thursday night began with the two teams lining up to form Van Houten’s initials across the gym floor. The Monarch seniors then presented Christensen with a bouquet of flowers. The Shenandoah senior, in turn, gave them to Van Houten’s wife Annie between sets of the match.
The Fillies made 16 errors while dropping the opening set. They regrouped to take the final three sets going away. Sydney Nielsen led Shenandoah with 16 kills. Serena Parker added 11 and four blocks. Heidi Fichter had 32 set assists.
“I was very proud of them down the stretch,” Skillern said. “We started nervous, maybe a little too keyed up. We had a lot of unforced errors, and I was afraid of that.
“It was our first match. And with this crowd, there was a little more electricity. Everybody was a little pumped. They settled down and started playing more within themselves.”
The Fillies never trailed during the final three sets.
The Monarchs (0-5) lost starting setter Shae Kierscht to an ankle injury in the first game. Shenandoah scored 11 of the first 13 points of the second set and never looked back.
The home crowd began chanting “C-V-H” after Parker’s final kill ended the match.
Skillern was pleased with the way his girls handled themselves in their first match without Van Houten.
“This was really cool,” he said. “He’s going to be with us all season, and then some.”
Denison-Schleswig (0-5) ............................ 25 12 16 17
Shenandoah (1-0) ............................ 16 25 25 25
D-S (kills-aces-blocks): M. Krohnke 0-0-0, B. Krohnke 4-0-2, Ellerbeck 0-0-0, Kierscht 1-1-0, Schultz 0-0-0, Carstensen 3-0-3, Slechta 7-0-3, Pick 0-1-0, Lee 1-1-0, Gustafson 6-0-1.
S (kills-aces-blocks): Christensen 1-0-0, Major 0-0-0, Runyon 3-3-0, Fichter 1-3-1, Doyle 0-1-0, Nielsen 16-0-1, Ehlers 0-0-0, Skillern 2-0-1, Palmer 2-0-0, Parker 11-0-4.
Set assists: D-S 17 (M. Krohnke 14, B. Krohnke 1, Carstensen 1, Pick 1), S 34 (Fichter 32, Palmer 1, Parker 1).