'Seemed like he was there forever': Reaction to the loss of former Mater Dei coach Fred Rakers

News-DemocratNovember 6, 2013 

Fred Rakers was a fixture at Mater Dei High School in Breese, seemingly as permanent as the brick and mortar used to build the school.

"It seems like he was there forever, and he would be there forever,'' former Belleville West coach Charlie Rodman said.

The Maroons and the Knights were perennial powers who went to the state tournament in the same year a remarkable 12 times from 1984 to 2004 under the two-class playoff system.

The Maroons were in Class AA, while the Knights were Class A. The two teams often rooted for each other during their matches at state.

"They usually stayed longer than we did," Rodman said. "I coached with him in the summer once or twice. It was a good rivalry. It was the kind of rivalry that you hope for in high school athletics in that it demands the best for your kids and you respect all that he is done and the sacrifices that he has made to make volleyball important in Breese.''

Mater Dei Principal Dennis Litteken learned over the years to break the code when Rakers was talking about the Knights during the preseason.

"When he said things like 'We'll be OK,' that was always a sign they were going to be very good," Litteken said. "When he said 'We'll be fine,' that meant they were probably going to have a great chance to win another state championship."

Former Mater Dei star Brooke Schulte played on the Knights' back-to-back state championship volleyball teams in 2010 and 2011.

"He definitely knew how to make every other team sound like they were going to be better than us and how we needed to fight through," Schulte said. "He made it like we were the underdogs. We were the fighters and we were going to come out on top. He knew exactly what to say, he knew how to stoke the emotions in us to get the fire for the games."

Rakers didn't just make an impact on his own players, he affected some of the top players in the region in a positive way. One of them was former Belleville West and Stanford University star Marnie Triefenbach-Herrling, who flew back to Illinois from her home in California after hearing about his illness.

"There are coaches that I've played for in my life that inspired me," Triefenbach-Herrling said. "And in the case of Fred Rakers, I couldn't explain it. He was a rival coach, a legend. I wanted him to think I was good. That meant something to me.

"When we played Mater Dei, I was always nervous and fired up --and he was a hilarious trash talker in that jovial 'Hey we got you sort of way."'

Rodman said Rakers went the extra mile to make the Knights' volleyball program into a winner, and keep it that way.

"His willingness to spend the time and the energy it takes and the sacrifices it takes to build it, and to keep growing with 'How do my kids get better,' as opposed to, 'This is what I know,''' Rodman said. "Fred was one of those people that were there right when I got started as well as (Red Bud's) Sandy Griffin, Mary Anne Downen from Freeburg, Wilma Schulze up in Granite City. When I came in, those were the coaches that you had to watch out for. You knew that their kids were being taught the right way.''

Rakers would sit on the bench during matches acting like he didn't care about the proceedings. He'd also tell you how bad the Knights were going to be next season if you ran into him during the offseason.

"I saw Fred evolve through a couple of stages,'' Rodman said. "At first when his team's were good, he was a little bit boisterous. Then he got to the 'Aw shucks, we're not very good this year' stage. You know when you got that, you were in big trouble because, 'Aw shucks, we are not very good,' meant that they had reloaded."

Litteken felt Rakers' ability to build the program helped push other coaches and programs in the metro-east and surrounding area.

"I think it's fair to say that it wasn't just Mater Dei volleyball that Fred Rakers impacted," Litteken said. "I think it was volleyball in Southern Illinois because Fred set the tone for 'How do you get here, how do you get better and what does it take?"'

Litteken said Rakers was much more than just a volleyball coach for Mater Dei.

"Fred was an ambassador for the school from the beginning and anywhere he went he was associated with Mater Dei," Litteken said. "He knew that and he did that very proudly and very well.

"There's definitely a hole, it's a void. I don't know if you fill it, but we definitely are challenged to try to. It's a loss."

Former Red Bud volleyball coach Sandy Griffin began her coaching career in the 1970s, the same era when Rakers began the Mater Dei program.

"I'm saddened because we've lost an icon in the volleyball world," said Griffin, whose team defeated Mater Dei in the 2002 Class A quarterfinals at the state tournament. "We met Fred in the quarterfinals and that was probably the first time that we had beaten Mater Dei on the state court.

"That was memorable to me, but he was truly a gentleman and a good sport whether they won or lost. Most of the time they won."

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