At 70 and now 34 seasons into coaching volleyball at Stewartville High School, John Dzubay has never felt quite this way about a season or a team.
This summer, it was almost too much for the former Stewartville band director.
“I found myself already writing lineups down on paper for this season (over the summer),” he said. “I don’t think I’d ever done that before.”
There was good reason for all of the anticipation. Dzubay, who’s coached teams to four state championships at Stewartville, is hoping to get the Tigers back to state for the first time since 2014, when they won it all.
And with this group, he knows the expectation is to do just that — and then some.
Stewartville begins this season ranked No. 1 in Class AA. There are two great reasons for that. One is that it graduated just one senior from last year’s 25-5 team, which lost 3-1 to then No. 1-ranked Kasson-Mantorville in the Section 1AA finals.
There is another even more significant reason for optimism, and it’s a reality that Dzubay doesn’t dodge.
“This might be the most talented team I’ve ever coached,” Dzubay said. “I just hope I don’t screw it up.”
Dzubay is only half kidding with the “screw-it-up” part.
“I still really enjoying trying to get the most out of kids,” he said. “But this group is so good. Sometimes I feel like I’ve just got to let them play.”
Really, there is zero chance of the latter happening. For proof, all one had to do was witness Stewartville’s match with Faribault Bethlehem Academy on Tuesday night. After a sloppy Game 1 win by the Tigers, Dzubay had already seen enough.
So he inserted his second string and left them in for the duration. Stewartville wound up winning the match 3-0.
The Tigers starters weren’t pleased with sitting out. But they respect Dzubay’s opinion and knowledge too much to protest.
“When Coach Dzubay talks, you listen,” said one of those Tigers stars, 6-foot senior outside hitter and future Division I college player (Illinois State) Kaitlyn Prondzinski. “He knows a lot about volleyball. He thought we weren’t playing our best, so he put the second team in. He thought they deserved that chance. And they did well. They won the match.”
Jotting down starting lineups wasn't the only way that Dzubay spent his summer. There were also a few of his staple trips to the Boundary Waters as well as a month-long journey out west for a friend’s wedding in Washington.
Dzubay made the trip by car, solo. But there were ample stops along the way, almost all of them catered to his thirst for disc golf. Dzubay googled top disc golfer courses along the way, then proceed to play 24 of them.
“I took a week to get out (to Washington), stopping whenever I felt like it,” he said. “I was having so much fun. There was one course that advertised the need to ‘watch out for rattle snakes.’ I didn’t see any. But it was a great place. There were no fairways; I was just throwing against the side of a cliff, just outside of Billings (Mont.).”
Dzubay returned to Stewartville refreshed and with those volleyball lineups quickly re-emerging in his head. He couldn’t help it, as there would be two returning all-state players to work with, second-teamer Prondzinski and first-teamer Erin Lamb (6-3 junior).
“Those are our best two hitters,” Dzubay said. “But if teams double up on them, we can go to someone else.”
Senior Lily Welch is an excellent option, with her smooth athleticism. So is junior Jolie Stecher, who’s returned to form after blowing out her knee as a freshman.
And then there is junior setter Jaidyn Brower. Dzubay delights in her abilities.
“I think we have at least three potential all-state players, and Brower is one of them,” Dzubay said. “She is beginning just her second year as a setter, but she already looks as if she’s been doing it forever.”
There is also plenty more to go with them, including standout sophomore right-side hitter Allie Elliot and a Stewartville second team which for one of the few times in Dzubay’s tenure can challenge the first team.
But Dzubay knows that talent, by itself, assures his team of nothing. He watched it stumble just enough Tuesday to be reminded of that.
So he did something about it, using it as a teaching moment. After 34 years of this, and with so much in front of him, there is no way that he’s going to get out of the way.
“We have great players, but we have to be a great team,” Dzubay said. “Everyone on this team is important, whether they are a starter or not. We’re working on that. That is a key.”