Twenty-eight years ago, Rita Schroeder was back home in Treynor, doing some subsitute teaching after graduating from Simpson College.
She had played basketball at Southwestern and Simpson. Volleyball was only an intramural sport at SWCC during her student years, and the basketball coach at Simpson didn’t want her trying to be a two-sport athlete.
“Fox (Clinton) showed up in Treynor at my house in his cowboy boots and cowboy hat, and said, ‘Rita, I want you to come to Southwestern and be my assistant coach.’ I said, why not? I ran the dorm, made $1,500 that first year, and was assistant coach for Fox in softball and basketball, and for Sarah Funderburk in volleyball.”
From those humble beginnings in the fall of 1984, a legendary career was born.
A year later, Funderburk and husband Terry, the East Union coach, moved to St. Louis, and Schroeder was persuaded to take over the volleyball program by Clinton, the school’s athletic director.
Fast-forward to Oct. 24, 2012. Clinton and many of Schroeder’s former players were on hand as the college’s volleyball court was officially designated “Rita Schroeder Volleyball Court” with a plaque across the scorer’s table for all home matches.
Schroeder served as head coach through 2009, the year she was treated for breast cancer. She was assistant coach the past three seasons, concluding those duties when the Spartans were eliminated Tuesday in regional play at Ellsworth.
Today is her final day in her office as SWCC admissions representative.
After undergoing knee replacement surgery and some vacation time, Schroeder is moving to North Carolina. She may get involved in mentoring coaches, or perhaps even more coaching, but there’s no rush.
“I’m not a shy girl,” she said, laughing. “I’ll bust through the door and shake some hands and see where it goes. I’m excited to see what lies ahead.”
If fighting cancer taught Schroeder anything, it’s don’t wait.
At age 50, she’s embarking on a new adventure, rather than take the “safe” route and wait four or five more years to qualify for early retirement. When she sold her house last July, she knew it was time to take the plunge.
“One thing you learn very quickly when you’re going through cancer is, things may never be the same,” Schroeder said. “Why wait? I’m making the leap.”
Forever loyal to her SWCC volleyball program, Schroeder knew that late summer would be too late for head coach Melissa Blessington — one of her former players — to enter the season with a new assistant coach. So, she stayed on until the 2012 season ended.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with Melissa the past two years and watching her grow,” Schroeder said. “I’ve been able to step back (as assistant) and not get so stressed out.”
At the court-naming ceremony prior to the home finale against Grand View JV, announcer Wade Sick recited the highlights of Schroeder’s remarkable career — 705 victories, five regional championships and trips to the national tournament, nine players earning All-American honors, more than 100 all-region players and 10 teams winning National Academic Awards.
“Coach Schroeder has touched the lives of thousands of young student-athletes in such a way that her legacy will live on forever in their lives,” Sick said. “Please direct your attention to the east end of the gymnasium, as Hall of Fame coach Ron Clinton escorts coach Schroeder for tonight’s presentation.”
And then, the one-time SWCC basketball player was honored by the permanent naming of the SWCC volleyball court in her name.
“It was extremely humbling,” Schroeder said. “I’m flattered, honored. Never in my wildest dreams did I think something like that would come my way. It’s a team (honor). It took a lot of great people.”
Her passion and dedication to Southwestern and the volleyball program are legendary.
As soon as she got the head coaching job, she conferred with experts such as Graceland coach Stu McDole and Terry Funderburk, who had coached at Dubuque Wahlert before East Union.
“I ordered videotapes, those VHS tapes that I still have down in my (SWCC) filing cabinent,” Schroeder said. “I watched them any spare time I had. I didn’t want to fail! I hadn’t played volleyball in college, and I wanted the best information I could get.”
Friendly and outgoing, Schroeder was a natural recruiter. In fact, as a SWCC sophomore she helped coach Betty Gaule recruit a strong freshman class and the team went all the way to the regional finals.
That loss stayed with her. And, drove her as a coach.
“As an athlete here at Southwestern, we got beat out to go to nationals in basketball,” she recalled. “I remember that feeling. It still sits in my gut. I said, the only way I can cure that is to get a team and this time, go. So yes, I did envision that we could get to the national tournament.”
Her teams went to nationals in 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1999. The 1999 team, which included Corning coach Lindsay (Brown) Wetzel, East Union assistant Naomi (Hoffman) Sharp and Tara Christensen of Lenox, finished third in the NJCAA D-II national tournament.
“That was a really good team,” Schroeder said. “You walked in and just felt like you could take on anybody. I truly believe we could have been national champs that year.”
The team, like so many other SWCC regional champions, had several players who first met Schroeder when she directed youth club volleyball for USA Volleyball. It was instruction-based, with a modest entry fee, and it exposed many outstanding players to Southwestern and its coach.
“It was a great feeder program and high school coaches appreciated the skill development,” Schroeder said. “But after 15 years I pulled the plug. It was so time-consuming, and I was starting to feel burned out. All of our coaches were volunteers.”
In the early days, the region title generally came down to one of three teams — SWCC, Iowa Western or Kirkwood.
The landscape of community college volleyball has changed. More schools are serious about it. Iowa Central and DMACC have joined Kirkwood as nationally-ranked Division II teams this year, while Iowa Western is a Division I power.
The challenge is greater for a campus in Creston, Iowa. But Schroeder is comfortable that the program is in solid hands under Blessington.
“She’s a great recruiter,” Schroeder said. “I have confidence in her. I really do care who’s taking it over and that it’s going to be done right. Maybe that’s selfish of me. But that’s how you get to where you are ... you care about it.”
Schroeder said players who first resisted her as a tough taskmaster and diligent monitor of academic progress later realized the vision — that they would be successful both on the court and in life.
It’s those relationships that she will miss most.
“I enjoy getting to know the kids,” Schroeder said. “Learning about their families, learning what makes them tick, what’s important to them and what they aspire to be someday. That’s what I’ll miss.”
And, Creston and Southwestern will miss Schroeder, and the impact she had on 2 1/2 decades of young people.
“Oh, I’ll be back to visit,” she said, sorting through her office Thursday afternoon. “The same road that takes me out, can also bring me back!”
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