For the past 35 years, one of the most familiar faces in Illinois volleyball history has been a fixture on the bench for the Mater Dei Knights.
Cancer has kept Hall of Fame coach Fred Rakers from filling his usual spot on the bench this season. But with the Knights (32-3) set to open the Class 3A state playoffs this week as the top seed at the Triad Regional, his spirit and inspiration figure to be a big part of their playoff run.
"I think he's holding on to get through the season," said Rakers' son, Mater Dei coach Chad Rakers. "He's been fighting a lot harder than he needs to."
Chad Rakers admitted this hasn't been an extremely difficult time for his father.
"He sleeps the majority of the day and when he is up we talk to him," Chad Rakers said. "We generally tell stories, share memories, stuff like that. He really can't talk much and when he does talk you have to really listen. It's rough right now."
Throughout the season and for decades now, it's been tough to think of Mater Dei volleyball without thinking of Fred Rakers. Until his son took over as head coach two years ago, every win in program history and each of the school's first six state titles were accomplished under Fred Rakers' care and guidance. He was an assistant coach alongside his son, Mater Dei coach Chad Rakers, when the Knights won their seventh state championship in 2011.
"What I've discovered is that being at the gym, being with the girls, it really brings me to a special place where everything's OK," Chad Rakers said. "That's where he is for me. He's in the gym with me. I feel at home in the gym."
Since they first learned about the cancer last summer and right through the season opener when Fred Rakers was honored before a packed gym, the Knights have dealt with their own emotional adversity even before the adversity provided by opponents on the court.
"I'm happy with how we've really handled some tough times," Chad Rakers said. "We've been involved in some tough matches over the last two or three weeks and some of those we came out the winner and some of those came out losers. But even the ones that we've lost, we've come out in the next game and were playing like we needed to be."
While Rakers' squad possesses similar talent to Mater Dei teams of the past, this one is devoid of superstars or major Division I prospects.
Their success has been found through a heavy reliance on teamwork, stingy defense and a refusal to back down.
"I like the way this team takes on a challenge and they've been doing that all year, proving people wrong," Rakers said. "We grew a lot. As the year went on, we really grew -- and not only together as a team but individually, player for player. When you se that growth occurring during a season, it's exciting."
Seniors Tori Johnson, Avoynna Kampwerth and Lexi Kohnen have been a driving force with leadership and play on the court.
"I think they've been underestimated their entire careers," Rakers said. "They just keep proving to everybody that they can do it."
Rakers said the support from his team and the entire area has been both humbling and appreciated. He also thanked his players for their help and overwhelming support in dealing with a difficult situation.
"They've been amazing through it all," Rakers said. "You can't ask more out of these kids. They've been unbelievable."