KEOSAUQUA — It has been a long and winding road for Matt Zeitler as the coach of the Van Buren High School volleyball team.
After eight years as the head of the program, he has said this would be his last year. What a year it has been!
The Warriors are playing in the state tournament for the first time in school history.
Waking up the next day after beating Nodaway Valley for that state tournament berth was one of the best days of the 53-year old’s life.
“Of all the best days I’ve had in my life was waking up the next day knowing we were going to the state tournament. I have accomplished everything I wanted to in volleyball on a personal level,” Zeitler said. “I learned a lot about volleyball through my kids and a little bit off the internet.”
He also learned a lot through his daughters, mainly Coach Ostrander, who left the Van Buren program last year to coach basketball at Cardinal.
“She is where the credit needs to go,” Zeitler said. “She knows the etiquette of volleyball. She knows all those big words and that’s something I don’t know and don’t want to know. People seem to think you’re not a very good coach if you don’t know how to use those big words. To me that don’t mean anything.”
He has a very simple philosophy for the game. “You just have to get the right kids is in the right spots. Then you have to hit the ball down on the other side of the net.”
He will tell anyone he is not an expert on volleyball but he did have some goals.
“I wanted to win a conference championship. I wanted to beat Holy Trinity. I wanted to beat New London. Those were some of the skeletons in my closet that I thought we could have never done. Those were goals for me. And the final goal was to get to the state tournament. That’s part of the reason this is going to be my last year. I have accomplished everything in eight years that anybody could ask for as a volleyball coach.”
Zeitler has a 125-120 record as the Warriors volleyball coach over eight years. One of those years was a three-win season, one was five wins. At one point his contract was not renewed, then as the season was about to start he was asked to coach after all.
“I took it to help get them by and because I enjoyed coaching,” Zeitler said. “I about didn’t take it but then I thought I would give it another shot. Now my record is about 90-24 in the last four years.”
A 1984 graduate of Van Buren, he started coaching junior high track having went to Central College to run track. He also took classes at Kirkwood in Indian Hills, at Iowa State, Buena Vista and night classes at Iowa. He finished with a Bachelor of Arts in human services with a minor in business and psychology.
“I have been coaching someone doing something since I was 23,” Zeitler said.
He has coached junior high volleyball and basketball and is now the varsity basketball coach. He coached his daughters in club basketball teams.
“We were traveling to six states or more to play games,” Zeitler said. “My wife has saved game tapes of every game I have ever coached. There are over 1,400 tapes in a closet in my house.”
He often has certain companions watching those tapes with him.
“All my kids know about my cats and they all know about my farming,” Zeitler said. “Those cats have watched 5 million films with me, including fourth grade games against Assumption.”
Most coaches say they have a responsibility that goes beyond the game, teaching not only on the floor but also sharing life lessons. “The kids will probably reminisce and say ‘remember that dumb story that Coach told us’ but somewhere down the road that story will mean something to them in their life,” Zeitler said. “Coaching is not just about leading them on the court but leading them in the direction they need to go in life.”
This is a man who knows about life lessons.
“I got in a little bit of trouble a few years ago,” Zeitler said. “(Former Van Buren superintendent) Lisa Beames stood behind me 110 percent. Some of the things that she told me and went through with me during some periods where I had to work things out really benefited me. Stuff I learned from her 13 years ago was very valuable to me. We all hit rough times, which is no different than playing the game of volleyball.”
Last year, when the coaches voted for the SEISC Coach of the Year, Holy Trinity’s Melissa Freesmeier did something she never thought she would do.
“She said this is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life and that was to write my name down for coach of the year,” Zeitler said. “She told me I deserved it and I hung with it. That meant a lot to me from a lady who’s had as much experience as she has. We’ll be friends forever.”
Battling through problems is something a coach learns to do, especially in high school.
“You have a lot of problems with parents when you’re playing freshmen,” Zeitler said. “But I survived it all and all those kids but two are still playing. I can’t ask for much more than that. It’s an opportunity to get to play this game and it’s the same way coaching.”
One reason he stayed in coaching was his competitiveness.
“This is what I enjoy,” Zeitler said. “If I supposedly don’t know what I’m doing, I sure got a lot of accolades along the way. I enjoy going against a Beckman. I love it. I told the kids that we are not playing on the same field they are, but we can still be better than they are.”
Knowing that the playing field isn’t level playing sports or in life is a lesson he shares with his players.
“That’s why I do it,” Zeitler said. “They will go on to be great kids when they leave Van Buren and I hope I had a little part of that.”
A big turning point in the Warriors’ season was the loss to Mediapolis at the SEISC tournament
“That class at Mepo never beat us before that,” Zeitler said. “That opened up our eyes. We come off of that, still thinking of that and go to New London and get worked over. I think we woke up the next morning and realize we were going to drop in the rankings and we knew we had to stay in the top eight to get a good seed. That would be the turning point.”
The Warriors haven’t lost a match since then. They have kept the pedal down and away they went.
“In my life, coaching volleyball has meant more to me than anything I’ve ever done,” Zeitler said. “I have had to fight a lot of battles and never gave up. I’ve battled through a lot of stuff because I have great parents.”
His parents are 97 and 95 years old and they have sat through a lot of ballgames. They are going to drive to Cedar Rapids to see the Warriors play and, hopefully, win.