Mental toughness defined SLUH’s racquetball team

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

The St. Louis area is recognized in the sporting world for its teams and athletes on many levels and in many sports.

Add high school racquetball to the mix.

Joe "Doc" Koestner has coached St. Louis University High School's racquetball program since 1985. The Junior Billikens haven't had a losing season since 1990 and have won 11 national championships since 1998, including the seventh consecutive in 2017. No other school has more than five national titles in the 29-year history of the event. SLUH also has won 18 state titles.

The RacquetBills recently won the state title by 320 points over Parkway West, then won the national title by 1,025 points over Oregon at the 2017 USA Racquetball High School National Tournament March 1-5 at MAC West in St. Louis. They had 47 players in the tournament among 391 athletes from 35 schools in 15 states.

Chris Schulze was the third best player in the tournament, the best finish of any SLUH player in the history of the program. Gold Division Medalists included seniors Schulze, Jacob Sullivan, Carlos Ayala, Jack Miner and Ian Modde; juniors Adam Hanson, James Storgion and Steven Zak; and sophomore Matt Hayes.

Koestner praised the players. "When the going gets tough, they hunker down and don't give up," he said. "Some players, once they get behind in a match, get mentally worked up and can't overcome it. Or if they lose the first game of a match, then they have a very difficult time coming back. That just wasn't the case with this batch."

Koestner, inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and the Missouri Racquetball Hall of Fame in 2016, called racquetball "a life sport" in which players still are competitive into their 80s. Many older players know how hard to hit the ball and where to place it, which allow them to defeat younger players. "These old guys, if they get their racquet on it, you're done," he said.

Getting to the highest levels is a challenge as in any sport, but racquetball is "fun from day one," he said. "I find kids take to it right away."

The sport has an appeal to competitive individuals who don't have the build or speed to excel in lacrosse, football or soccer, for example. "We get kids who figure out the geometry of the game and have a lot of success because they can outsmart their opponent," Koestner said.

Koestner played racquetball in college and in 1985, in his second year of teaching at SLUH, he heard that the school's racquetball club was looking for a moderator. He brought in top-notch players who put on clinics. Koestner took notes and incorporated the concepts into his program.

"The first years were really learning years for me as a coach," he said. "I'm proud of every team. For me it's just such a gift that parents entrust their kids to the program and invest the time and money to do the sport."

Sullivan, from St. Teresa Parish in Belleville, Ill., started playing racquetball his sophomore year to join his friends. "I like the fast pace of the game," he said. "I am really proud that SLUH has had such a strong program."

"We work really hard, with constant practice and dedication," said Storgion, from St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood, who started playing in the eighth grade.

Schulze, also from St. Peter Parish, enjoys the speed and competitive nature of racquetball. A baseball and soccer player when he came to SLUH, he was cut from the final soccer squad his freshman year. He took a chance on playing racquetball, and it's paid off.

"It's a sport that requires a lot of hand-eye coordination, body control and speed, and I guess I fit the bill," he said. "We all play smart racquetball. We don't always go for the coolest shot or the shot that feels the best but the shot that has the highest chance of winning the point."

Hayes, from St. Joseph Parish in Manchester, played in middle school after watching his brother play. He brings his faith into the sport by doing his best, paying attention to sportsmanship and respecting other players. He enjoys playing an individual sport, competing against himself and an opponent.

He calls playing, simply, "a blast." 

>>Racquetball

High school teams playing racquetball include CBC, Chaminade, Cor Jesu, De Smet, Nerinx Hall, Notre Dame, St. Louis University High, Vianney, St. Joseph's Academy Ursuline Academy and Visitation Academy. About 460 students play in the league.

The league begins mid-November and runs through mid-February when the state tournament begins.The national tournament follows, held alternating years in St. Louis and Portland, Ore., two areas with the largest high school programs.

Former SLUH players coach at De Smet Jesuit High School, CBC High School and Notre Dame High School, either as head coaches or assistants. "Not only is it extremely satisfying to see my former players keep playing, but they're bringing our racquetball style and philosophy to other schools," said Joe Koestner, head coach at SLUH.

Assisting the coach with the 70-member SLUH squad are Patrick Zarrick, Robert Hoffmann, Stephen Deves, Don Beckerle, Jeff Rombach, Ryan Franklin, Matt Gleason and Nick Schwetz.

Zarrick said "the joy and experience of sharing this continued success over the years has been really meaningful. To watch these young men work hard, go after a goal and achieve it is very gratifying."

He said that as the team's success has grown, players feel pressure to continue to achieve that level. "I've really been impressed with the mental toughness of our young men to not only thrive under that pressure, but to achieve and succeed with the high expectations," Zarrick said.

Deves said the team becomes a community. "You spend a lot of time getting to know the players. Somehow every year this racquetball team gets some of the best players our school has to offer. Quality people ... the ability and strength to fight through disappointment and be humble about and enjoy the successes along the way." 

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