Hibbing volleyball coach wins 700th match
HIBBING, Minn. -- Gail Nucech is a creature of habit.
Decades ago, in the formative days of Minnesota high school volleyball when the sports funding was virtually nonexistent, Nucech would bring her Hibbing team to a tournament in Apple Valley and stay overnight in the school's wrestling room to save money.
So, now that volleyball is on nearly equal footing with other sports at Hibbing, where do the Bluejackets stay when they make their annual pilgrimage to Apple Valley?
You guessed it, the wrestling room.
"It's team camaraderie," Nucech said. "We play there, eat there and sleep there."
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
It's the same way with victories for Nucech. She became the first Minnesota volleyball coach to win 700 career matches.
"I respect Gail, she's an icon in girls volleyball around here," Hermantown coach Beth Clark said. Nucech's 700th win came against Hermantown.
Nucech's players say their coach isn't celebrating the milestone.
"She could care less what number of wins she has, she's just trying to help players get better," said Nucech's daughter, Crystal, who played at Hibbing from 1996-99 and later at Wisconsin-Green Bay and Minnesota Duluth.
Gail Nucech said the wins are more important to her players.
"The experiences are for the kids," she said. "I've been there, done that. Now it's their turn to be there and do that."
How much longer she'll do that is not certain -- the 57-year-old Nucech says she's unsure when she'll step down -- though she's eligible to retire as a physical education teacher this year.
"I take it day by day," Nucech said. "I'll have to see how the season goes. Some people want me to stay a little longer."
Nucech already has coached second-generation players. Assistant coach Nancy McKenzie's oldest daughter, Katie, went through the program a few years ago. Another of McKenzie's daughters, 9-year-old Molly, is a few years away.
"I keep telling her she has to stay around for (Molly) and she just says, 'That's not going to happen,"' McKenzie said.
It's hard to imagine Hibbing volleyball without Nucech on the sidelines. Not just the founder of the program, N 3/4cech is the matriarch of the sport in Minnesota.
High school girls athletics was quite different when she came to Hibbing in 1969. A volleyball and basketball player at Bemidji State, Nucech started coaching what amounted to intramural teams since the Minnesota State High School League did not sponsor volleyball or basketball for girls.
"In the first year I coached I got $125 for whatever I did. And I did a lot," she said. "The next year I got a $25 raise."
Finances were so tight on those early teams that players often used their fathers' white T-shirts and painted numbers on them to use as uniforms, said Pat Castagneri, a member of the 1969-71 teams, and later a longtime assistant to Nucech.
In the early years, Nucech coached volleyball and basketball. She was a steadfast proponent of girls athletics receiving equal treatment. But, Nucech says, contrary to what some people may have thought, she wasn't interested in taking from one side to give to the other. She just wanted fair treatment from the administration.
"They thought we were going to take their time away, take their facilities away and take their money away," Nucech said of supporters of the boys' programs.
Gary Addington, who coached the Hibbing boys basketball team to state tournaments in 1975 and '76 and later was athletic director at the school, recalls conflicts arising from time to time.
"We butted heads periodically over gym times and space," said Addington, who now supervises athletics for the Rochester school district. "She always stood her ground and I respected her for that."
Eventually Nucech was given an ultimatum to choose between coaching basketball or volleyball. She chose the latter, quickly building a dynasty.