Mater Dei's Hall of Fame volleyball coach Fred Rakers dies after battle with cancer

News-DemocratNovember 6, 2013 

A BND file photo shows former Mater Dei volleyball coach Fred Rakers with his daughters, from left, Jen Calloway and Erin Crawford.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com Buy Photo

Fred Rakers, the Hall of Fame coach who built Mater Dei High School into one of the state's top volleyball programs, died Wednesday afternoon after battling cancer for several months.

Rakers was 68 and his cancer was diagnosed in August. He is survived by his wife, Rosie, and children Chad Rakers, Jennifer Calloway and Erin Crawford.

Chad Rakers said his father's funeral services, still pending, will be held at the Mater Dei High School gym.

The former National High School Volleyball Coach of the Year guided the Knights to six state championships and a career record of 1,046 wins, 200 losses and seven ties. The win total is the second-highest in Illinois history.

The Knights won state titles in 1987, 1993, 1994, 1995, 2001 and 2010 under Rakers, adding another in 2011 under his son, Chad Rakers, with Fred Rakers at his side as an assistant.

"He was one of the iconic coaches," said Marty Hickman, the Illinois High School Association's Executive Director. "It's not just in volleyball, either. He's really one of the iconic coaches of all-time."

Hickman said Rakers was one of those rare coaches known throughout the state.

"When you think about volleyball programs, you think about Mater Dei, you think about Wheaton St. Francis, Quincy Notre Dame and a few others," Hickman said. "He really epitomized a love for high school volleyball and it was evident if you ever watched him coach his kids."

Chad Rakers said he felt his father's presence throughout this season. The Knights lost to the Central Cougars last Thursday in the regional championship and Rakers saw the irony in the situation.

"Last week during the regionals was really rough," Chad Rakers said. "That's kind of when I knew it was getting close. But I really believe he was holding out for me and the team, which I didn't want him to do.

"That's who he is. Even on his last days he was thinking about others other than himself."

Fred Rakers' incredible run at Mater Dei featured 14 state trophies, including one runner-up finish, three third places and three fourths.

The Knights also won four district championships, 24 regionals, 21 sectionals and 20 super-sectionals. His final team was 41-1 and finished the 2010 season ranked 26th in the nation.

The moment that the Knights' clinched that state title will never leave Chad Rakers' mind.

"It was our first state title together in 2010," Chad Rakers said. "I'll never forget that hug, it was a 25-23 game and the last point fell and we immediately jumped into each other's arms. I'd love to be able to do that again."

Rakers was honored at the Knights' first home game this season before a packed gym. Hundreds of people made their way to speak to him, hug him or just shake his hand in an incredible outpouring of support from not only his own school and community, but many more from the surrounding area.

As an all-state player in two sports at Mater Dei, Brooke Schulte always could count on Fred Rakers to keep her head on straight.

"He taught me not only on the volleyball court how to be a better player, but to be a better person," said Schulte, a state champion volleyball player at Mater Dei and now a redshirt freshman basketball player at DePaul University. "The woman that I grew into, he really structured that and how I act now is different than what it would have been.

"This hits close to home and he's really dear to me because of the fact that he was so hard on me. He was always pushing me to be better, he never let me get a big head for all the accolades that I got."

Though they were intense rivals on the court, Rakers and Central High volleyball coach Jim Cook became close friends. Cook was a constant visitor after Rakers' cancer was diagnosed.

"After our games, we'd always go somewhere that we knew neither one of our parents or people would be," Cook said. "We'd have a couple drinks together and talk about the game or anything else. Early in my years here at Central, he and I rode together to the Class A or AA state tournament.

"It was friendly, it always has been on the court. We'd get after it and our teams would get after it, that's just the way it was."

Cook said Rakers was easily among the top volleyball coaches in state history.

"I think you've got to put him up there where his record says, where his state championships and state appearances say," Cook said. "That's pretty phenomenal, I think."

Cook said this season seemed strange without having Fred Rakers coaching at Mater Dei, as he had done for the previous 35 years.

"When we were in 2A and they were in 3A, there were those two or three years when we both went up there and were competing at the state tournament," Cook said. "It just shows what we have had here in this community and actually in the county (Clinton County).

"Missing that, missing these state playoff games, knowing we were both watching each other and seeing who was going to make what decisions. ... That was tough."

Fred Rakers' impact is nearly impossible to calculate because of the tremendous number of lives he touched as a teacher, a coach, a school supporter and the numerous other roles he held throughout his lifetime.

"It's amazing what one person can do," Chad Rakers said. "It shows you what you can accomplish if you live life the right way. He's not only shown me and my family that, but also the community and the local area that one person can make an impact. We're proud of the impact that he made."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or on Twitter @NormSanders

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