BREESE — They were calling it "A Legendary Knight For Fred" on Tuesday and former Mater Dei volleyball coach Fred Rakers was certainly treated to an emotional and tribute-filled evening.
Despite the heat, fans packed the Mater Dei gym to near-capacity to honor Rakers, the 68-year-old Hall of Fame coach and former National Coach of the Year who recently was diagnosed with cancer.
"It's overwhelming, really, to see," Rakers' son, Mater Dei volleyball coach Chad Rakers said after the Knights capped off the evening with a 25-16, 25-18 season-opening win over Belleville East. "It's the kind of night you always want to have, you dream of a night like this. Obviously not in the scenario that we're in."
Earlier this month, Rakers was diagnosed with stage four adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that begins in the glandular cells. He has been at home with his family since then.
Many in the huge crowd were wearing light blue "Fighting for Fred" shirts being sold in his honor, including the Belleville East coaching staff.
"We wanted to show Fred just how much he means to all of us," Belleville East coach Stacey Posey said. "He's the guy that you love to see, but you hate to play against. I always love to see him, but you hate to play against him."
There were also Rakers' former players, former students, family, friends and many more.
Rakers watched the volleyball matches from a corner of the gym near the stage with daughter Jen Calloway, wife Rosie, and other family members nearby as a steady stream of friends made their way over to greet him throughout the night.
"I think he was doing well; he was putting on a strong face," Chad Rakers said of his father. "He's just doing his best, he's battling every day and we're battling with him. We're just doing everything we can to live every day like it's the most important day of our lives."
That importance was brought home by several lengthy standing ovations.
"Tonight we're here to celebrate 45 wonderful years of commitment, loyalty and service," Mater Dei Principal Dennis Litteken said, referring to Rakers' tenure at the school. "He is a true Knight."
Rakers, a 1964 Mater Dei graduate, retired last May after 45 years of service to the school in a variety of capacities. Along with molding several generations of students, Rakers was best known for turning the Mater Dei Knights into a state volleyball power.
His teams won six state championships and his final team in 2010 was 41-1, won a state championship and finished the season ranked 26th in the nation. He remained on staff as his son's assistant coach for the school's seventh state title the following year.
After Litteken's speech, the band played the school fight song as everyone stood and clapped in rhythm, and Rakers was clapping right along with them.
As the ceremony began, Mater Dei's football team, cheerleaders and dance squad all filed through the gym to shake Rakers' hand as a long standing ovation continued.
They were joined by fans, coaches and others who wanted to shake Rakers' hand or give him a hug.
Chris Gebke, 46, had trouble talking about her former coach without shedding tears.
A 1985 Mater Dei graduate who later played at Tennessee-Martin, Gebke --whose maiden name is Glaub -- was one of three sisters to play for Rakers.
"He said 'it's not an option to lose,''' Gebke said, and although it was a lesson he drilled into his players it could just as easily have been his own unwavering approach to the cancer diagnosis. "I can remember him saying that over and over. If we would suffer a tough loss we never cried, we moved on and we fixed it.
"That's the tradition he gave us."
Gebke's older sister Diane played on Rakers' first team in the mid-1970s and later played at Quincy. Another sister, Angie, excelled at Mater Dei before playing at Memphis State.
Rakers began Mater Dei's volleyball program in 1975, starting the entire program from scratch after getting a book on volleyball coaching from the school library.
The three sisters were together Saturday night and paid a visit to their old coach. The conversation inevitably circled back to volleyball and family, two of Rakers' favorite subjects.
"We just needed to see him. He has always called his volleyball players 'his girls' and I truly believe that," said Chris Gebke, whose daughter, Elle Gebke, has carried on the family tradition by playing for the Knights' this season.
"I love the Mater Dei tradition, the spirit in this gym in amazing. The student body supports it a lot and the community supports it a lot --and it's all because Fred started it. Everyone knows Mater Dei and everyone knows Coach Rakers and what he's done."
Also making the trip to Breese for the ceremony was former Althoff volleyball coach Kathy Wuller, whose teams battled Rakers and the Knights through the years as two of the top programs in Southern Illinois.
Now an Althoff volleyball assistant coach, Wuller brought along several players to attend the ceremony.