A perfect ending
MICHIGAN CITY — There was a time during Don Thompson’s 37-year tenure at St. Paul Lutheran School when enrollment was over 200 and classrooms were filled wall to wall with 30 students.
Experiencing a decline in numbers akin to many private schools, St. Paul’s now houses about 95 children for grades Kindergarten through eighth.
“I’ve got 10 in a class now,” Thompson said. “The young teachers don’t realize. It has its benefits, too. Every kid has two lockers. The stack of papers to grade isn’t as bad. It’s just tough sometimes when you’re trying to have a team. It would be nice to have more kids to choose from.”
Limited numbers sure didn’t hamper the St. Paul volleyball teams this season. The 7-8 team finished 14-0, winning the Parochial Athletic Conference tournament Nov. 12 at Marquette High School, while the 5-6 team went 13-1, sustaining its only loss in the tournament championship.
“I can’t remember a time when both teams were that successful,” Thompson said. “Basketball’s maybe had four teams go undefeated over the years, but it’s the first time for volleyball.”
If anyone would know, it would be Thompson. The Minnesota native and big-time Vikings fan came to St. Paul in 1981 and never left, a testament to stability in a profession where job change has become the norm.
“At the time, jobs were hard to come by and the Lutheran schools were looking for people,” he said. “I met my wife. It’s a good place. You find that you like it and get comfortable. It sort of just worked out.”
During that period, Thompson, who teaches Social Studies, has coached basketball, soccer and volleyball, and has served as Athletics Director for most of that time.
“Whatever sport’s needed,” he said.
He’d spent limited time coaching volleyball before taking on the sport when the current eighth graders were in fifth grade. “Not so hot” that year, they won conference as sixth graders and finished around .500 last season, when Thompson didn’t coach.
“Fifth and sixth grade is really just serving,” he said. “There’s probably a little luck involved. It makes a lot of difference when the team on the court is the older class.”
That was the case this season for the Crusaders, a seven-player team comprised of six eighth graders and one seventh grader.
“They were talking about winning right at the beginning of the year,” Thompson said. “It was already on their minds.”
The 7-8 team navigated the schedule with little resistance. Its only three-game match prior to the tourney final came against Queen of All Saints, the same team St. Paul topped 25-12, 22-25, 15-7 in the final.
“We also played Queens in the championship in sixth grade, so it’s become a little bit of a rivalry,” Thompson said.
The St. Paul roster includes Emma Haring, Alexis Birdsong, Emily England, Shelby Schuman, Jaycie Daniel, Ava Moore and Paige Burton.
“They’re all pretty solid athletes, good kids with good, supportive parents who are always there,” Thompson said. “When you have those three things, you’re pretty lucky.”
The team celebrated their championship with a pizza party at Gelsosomo’s, enjoying a chauffeured ride in a decorated limousine, courtesy of one of the player’s parents.
“It is such a joy to watch our girls play,” St. Paul principal Christy Hilb said. “Their teamwork is amazing and the dedication they put into their game is wonderful to see.”
While Thompson cherishes all his team experiences, this one will certainly hold a special place in his memory.
“Like one of the girls said (Wednesday), I’m turning in my volleyball uniform for the last time, this is a pretty sad day,” he said. “I think you miss them all, but this has been an easy group to coach and teach.”