Committed to Excellence: Minnesota high school dedicated to athletes on and off playing surfaces
The words “commitment to excellence” have hung above Kurt Habeck’s office door since Eastview High School (Minnesota) opened 21 years ago. It was a testament to his program’s pledge to help students improve inside and outside of sports, but it’s really an appropriate motto for the school’s dedication to education-based athletics.“My philosophy is a commitment to excellence academically, athletically, socially and emotionally,” said Habeck, the varsity wrestling coach. “I think that comes across in everything we do and everything we talk about.”
Eastview is among Minnesota’s 10 best high schools, according to U.S. News and World Report. While it has been around for two decades, Habeck admits a lot of people still consider it a “new school.” Its success is beginning to change that.
Since 1997, Eastview placed 115 teams in the top eight at state, while winning 25 state titles, 70 conference championships and 19 individual sport state championships. Despite the school’s success in competition, it’s how the program develops athletes and coaches that makes Assistant Principal for Curriculum and Athletics Matt Percival most proud.
“For us, it’s all about the human growth and development of every athletes and every student,” Percival said. “When they leave here they may not throw a football again or kick a soccer ball, but we know that those life lessons they learn through sports will last.”
When the school opened its doors, the administration gathered feedback from parents, coaches, teachers and students, asking what they valued in a quality institution. From those conversations, they created a list of 30 core values that would become the “puzzle pieces” for the school’s philosophy. The pieces included respect, honesty, trust, integrity, teamwork and positive leadership.
Percival is well versed in the concept of using athletics to teach life lessons. He’s heavily involved in the InSideOut Initiative, a national program co-founded by Joe Ehrmann that teaches leaders in sports to use the game as a vehicle to develop student-athletes. It forces program leaders to reflect on why and how they coach, strengthening their abilities and philosophies in interscholastic sports.
The InSideOut Initiative has been a critical tool to remind coaches and athletes that education-based sports go beyond wins and losses. Percival said the boys lacrosse program is a prime example. One year ago, the lacrosse team was ranked No. 1 in Minnesota before suffering a stunning loss in the sectional finals, ending its memorable season. Coaches and athletes were undoubtedly disappointed, but they also understood that a state championship didn’t define their season.
“If our only judgement of success was based on wins and losses, most people would have said that season was a failure,” Percival said. “Yet, if you ask every single kid in that program, or any parent and coach, they would tell you it’s one of the most successful seasons they’ve ever been a part of. It’s partly about the win-loss record, but it’s also because of the relationships they developed.”
Eastview’s coaches have embraced the school’s character-first approach. Tom Sharp, who coaches boys cross country and track and field, believes sports always must have an eye on the bigger picture. He recalls his own experiences in high school and college sports, and the impact they had. He wants to pass that on to his own players.
“My hope is when young men leave our program or a student leaves my class, they go out better than they came in,” he said. “We give them the tools to cope with life.”
Jenny Raiche is entering her 16th year as head coach of the dance team, which has won 13 state championships during that time. She was reluctant to join the coaching ranks after graduating from college, but her mind quickly changed after an interview at Eastview.
“I fell in love with the atmosphere, the culture, the staff, and I never looked back,” Raiche said. “My coaching career is focused as much on the roots of the tree as the fruits of the tree.”
All athletic directors want to win state championships, but it’s not what drives Eastview. When a candidate comes to interview for a coaching job, Percival doesn’t want to talk about fundamentals or win-loss records until he’s established that the focus will first be on the development of the student-athletes.
“If we don’t know our why and we don’t understand our why first, then the rest of it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “I can be the most organized coach with the best coaching résumé, but if I can’t focus on the growth and human development of kids, then you’re not going to be a fit here in our building.”
Percival considers hiring coaches the most important aspect of his job as an athletic administrator. And because he’s so careful to only employ coaches who place the student before the athlete, it has created a culture that’s respected by athletic programs throughout Minnesota.
Among Eastview’s priorities is community service, something many coaches require of their student-athletes. Habeck said all wrestlers are asked to give back to the sport, and they achieve that by volunteering with a youth program that was created when the school opened. Varsity athletes cannot letter in the sport without giving back through the youth wrestling program.
“It’s important for them to appreciate the sport and then to be role models for the younger kids, which impacts them academically, athletically and socially,” Habeck said.
Sharp also requires at least one community service project with both his cross country and track teams.
“It can’t just be about the sport, about winning or individual success,” he said. “It has to be about the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture is why so many coaches emphasize community service, teamwork and leadership development. Girls soccer coach David Herem said his program is goal-driven, and each player is asked to make individual goals in addition to the team goals set by the group. His assistant coach teaches a leadership class, and coaches meet often with players to talk about visualization, personal growth and positive thinking. Herem planned to use an upcoming team meeting to discuss leadership lessons from Urban Meyer’s book, “Above the Line.”
Raiche takes a similar approach. In addition to making professional development a priority, her coaches read books with their senior players to teach them about leadership. During the last three years, her players read books like Jon Gordon’s “The Energy Bus,” “The Hard Hat” and “The Power of Positive Leadership.”
“We take time at least once a week to talk about the why and what’s important to us as a program,” Raiche said.
The Eastview athletic program is recognized as a special place by those inside and outside of the school, and coaches believe it’s the focus on academic and athletic excellence that’s earned it the reputation. For Percival, it’s a simple commitment to the education-based philosophy and the individual development of Eastview’s student-athletes.
“The focus has to be on the relationships with the kids, and that’s what makes it unique at the end of the day,” he said. “At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, it has to come back to being relationships-focused … That’s what makes Eastview High School a pretty special community.”
About the ‘Champions Program’
This is the sixth year of Coach & Athletic Director’s Champions Program. Each year, we choose a different state and set out to identify one school that best demonstrates a commitment to student-athletes in competition, in the classroom, and developing skills that serve athletes throughout their lives. This year, we chose Eastview High School in Apple Valley, Minnesota.
To find a worthy school, we requested input from state associations, coaches and other team sports leaders throughout Minnesota. The Coach & Athletic Director staff then researches and reviews each school before choosing our featured program. The goal of Champions Program is to identify a school that embodies the true meaning of education-based athletics and offer an inside look at how it improves and leads student-athletes.