Cougar Coaching Roots Run Deep
Many of sport’s most successful coaches have so-called coaching trees. A former assistant coach or former player – or, in some cases, someone who has been both – move on to a different school or level and, using lessons picked up from their former coach, achieve similar success. It should come as no surprise then that Illinois Central College Head Volleyball Coach and Director of Athletics, Sue Sinclair, has her own coaching tree. After all, Sinclair has already been elected to the NJCAA Volleyball Coach’s Hall of Fame and, just this past season, won her 900th match as head coach at ICC.
Sinclair wasn’t the only branch on her coaching tree to celebrate a milestone victory this year. Three former ICC players who are now head coaches led their teams to state championships in their respective divisions this past fall. At the high school level, former Cougar player Tracy (Young) Heffren coached Eureka High School to an IHSA Class 2A state championship.
Heffren played in a national tournament at ICC for then head coach Karen Guthmiller, before heading off to play at Illinois State. She later returned to her alma mater as Sinclair’s assistant and coached in a national tournament as well. This year’s Eureka team finished 35-4 and advanced to the state finals for the first time since Heffren herself was suiting up for the Hornets.
“It’s quite an experience both at ICC and Eureka to play for a championship,” Heffren said. “But when you get your team there as a coach, I think it really hits you just what this accomplishment really means to the school and to the community as a whole. It’s really a lot to think about.” Heffren credits both Guthmiller and Sinclair for preparing her for coaching.
“Karen and Sue both expected a lot out of you,” Heffren said. “They wanted you to think for yourself, but weren’t afraid to guide you in the right direction so that you could be a better player and a better teammate.
“That’s what I try to do with my team. I want to make sure we are fundamentally sound, especially with serving and passing just as Sue stresses, because that’s what gets you into running your offense and the special plays for your hitters.”
There was no former Cougar player turned assistant coach more thrilled to see Heffren’s squad bring home a state championship than Samantha (Reannau) Sopko, who credits her time as an All-American outside hitter at ICC to following Heffren’s example.
“Growing up, coming to Sue’s camp, the player I wanted to be like was Tracy Heffren,” Sopko said. “And I’ve told her that many times over the years.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise earlier in the year, that Sopko guided Washington Central’s seventh-grade team to an IESA Class 3A state championship. Coincidentally, Sopko’s team beat Eureka in three games in the IESA title match.
“It’s just awesome to be able to give back to the community,” Sopko said. “The girls really grew as players and as teammates and became as passionate as I am about volleyball.”
That passion for volleyball was stoked by Sinclair, who Sopko both played for and then spent five years with as an assistant coach.
“Where do I start with how Sue has impacted me as a coach?” Sopko asked. “She’s my mentor, my go-to source of information. From team building exercises to her conditioning approach to her rules on healthy eating, I’m trying to be just like her.”
Like Heffren, Sopko credited Sinclair with showing her how to teach her players how to think the game.
“Sue does a great job of explaining the game,” Sopko said. “I was shocked when I went to an NCAA Division 1 and had teammates who would do something and not know why they were doing it. That’s what I try to do with my girls. I want them to understand why we have them do something so that they can slow the game down and start to think ahead.”
Another middle school coach who drew heavily upon Sinclair’s teachings was former Cougar Jennifer Lamberti, who guided Peoria’s Christ Lutheran School to a third consecutive Lutheran Sports Association state title. No school had ever won three titles in a row.
“Sue is phenomenal. I always call Sue and ask for advice,” Lamberti said. “And we do a lot of things the same way she did. Sue always pushed us to play at the highest possible level, more like an (NCAA) D1 team. That’s why we do things like free-ball plays and jump serves, which you don’t see a lot at the middle school level. We want to push our kids to play more like a high school team.”
One of Lamberti’s greatest sources of pride, however, is her team’s GPA. Like Sinclair, Lamberti stresses both athletic and academic excellence and her charges rewarded her with a 3.9 team GPA. Lamberti also thanks Sinclair for providing drills that have improved her team’s fundamentals.
“She gave us a lot of drills on mental, eye training, things like that,” Lamberti said. “I think we angered a lot of coaches a couple of years ago because Sue pointed out during our eye training that our girls could take advantage of a re-do on the toss during the serve and we had a lot of drops on the first toss that year.”
Now, the only question that remains is: who will be the next branch on the tree to bloom?
At the net: former ICC Volleyball Standout Yvonne (Welch) Thompson coached her Pekin High School team to both a Mid-Illini Conference Championship and Regional Championship, finishing the season 33-3. In addition, assisting Coach Heffren with the Eureka High School State Championship was another ICC Volleyball Alum, Lena (Meiss) Dohner. And so, the tradition of excellence continues.