Over the span of five years, the Staples-Motley Cardinals football team lost 39 straight games, one of the longest streaks in the state. When they finally won in August 2015, the school left the scoreboard lights on all weekend to celebrate, and they were featured on the front page of this newspaper.
The team, under its new coach Travis VanOverbeke, won six games and lost four that year and made the playoffs. They followed up last year with a 5-5 record, even though their coach said he was under “investigation” during the season for an undisclosed offense.
In April the school principal and district superintendent approved VanOverbeke’s contract for next year.
But at a subsequent meeting, the board nullified the contract with a 3-3 vote.
Now the coach who rebuilt the football program is in the odd position of losing that job but remaining as athletic director. Minutes after the board vote, the district superintendent, Mary Klamm, said she would resign at the end of the school year. Five coaches of the 7th-12th grade football teams also said they were quitting.
The dispute over the coach has upended the entire district, and it’s a situation no one can or will discuss.
Some now think the football program faces the possibility of shutting down, dimming the Friday night lights that had brought fans back into town, and threatening other programs that feed off football.
I graduated from what was Staples High School and I played football for the Cardinals. I know how important sports are in a small town with limited outlets for entertainment.
“My concern as a principal is the impact this has on our student-athletes and all the other chairs they occupy,” said Mike Schmidt, principal of Staples-Motley High School. “The possibility of not having football this fall seems catastrophic. We are a small school and a lot of students occupy seats in other activities. The loss of one program impacts all of the others. When people think things are unstable, they begin shopping.”
Who needs a pep band when there is no team?
There are plenty of rumors swirling around Staples of why VanOverbeke was investigated, but officials who know are prohibited from discussing the matter because of employee privacy rights. The coach was not charged with any crime, nor was he disciplined by the school.
VanOverbeke told me he is remaining silent, for now, because he intends to reapply for the coaching job. Klamm, who remains superintendent until June, will work with a committee to hire a new coach. They could also rehire VanOverbeke and force the board to overrule them again. Either way, VanOverbeke could remain athletic director and be the boss of the new coach.
“It’s a scenario that’s incredibly unique,” said Schmidt. “I really don’t want to be that special.”
The school board also overruled the administration on another hire the night they rejected the coach’s contract, a reaction Klamm told the Staples World was “pretty unprecedented.”
In an interview, Klamm characterized both her and the community’s reaction as “disappointed and sad” about the loss of the coach and the resignations of six employees.
“I guess my reason [for resigning] was I felt that I didn’t have the board behind me, as a leader of the school district, to accomplish our vision for the future,” Klamm said. She added that she was “hopeful” that the coaching situation could be resolved in time to save next season.
Dave Hoemberg, one of the board members who voted against rehiring VanOverbeke, said he thinks the chances of losing the football team are “slim.”
“It’s the administration’s job to get one [a coach],” said Hoemberg. He believes the coaching jobs and athletic jobs should be separate. When there is an issue with the coach, “families get worked up pretty bad, and you go to the AD and you don’t get anything resolved.
“It’s kind of two sides against each other and they don’t know what’s going on.”
Schmidt said he hoped they wouldn’t “lose student athletes and the people who support them. I’ve been proud of our student athletes through this. It’s a reflection of the men they’ve been coached by.”
Schmidt said that 80 to 100 people showed up for the last school board meeting and were vocal in supporting the team. “I believe it was the community’s finest moment,” said Schmidt. “A lot of people who had never been to a board meeting came. It was a great night to be a Cardinal.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin