Kennedy HS (Iowa) finds athletic success through relationships, culture
The culture that has come to define Kennedy High School’s athletic program is best illustrated by former principal Dr. Mary Wilcynski and her profound memory.
The way coaches remember it, prior to each school year Wilcynski would study the enrollment books and memorize the names of nearly 1,800 students. Her obsessive routine was an effort to bridge the gap between administration and students, creating an atmosphere that felt more like home than school.“Her days were spent bouncing around to classrooms getting know to people, getting to know teachers, getting to know their stories and then connecting people,” said Kennedy Athletic Director Aaron Stecker. “It was something we learned from her over time.”
Kennedy has a reputation as one of Iowa’s top athletic programs, and the school’s coaches believe that’s fashioned by the work they do away from the playing surfaces.
Wilcynski’s commitment to uniting students and staff is still apparent throughout the school, years after she retired from her position. Trophy cases contain lists of every team’s coach dating back to the 1970s, and another display includes photographs of the nearly two dozen current head coaches. Nearly half those coaches are not teachers, but each visits the school regularly just to talk to student-athletes and develop a bond.
Of course, there are the conference and state championships that mark any great program, but coaches at Kennedy are less interested in titles and more motivated by their influence. Nearly all of them have memories of how coaches impacted their lives, and they want to pay it forward. That all starts with trust, relationships and an appreciation of the school’s culture.
“We want people to know there is a history and a tradition to everything that we’ve done here,” Stecker said.
Part of that tradition is participation in athletics and activities, and Kennedy’s school district — which includes four high schools total — does that with a no-cut policy. Coaches admit it can be difficult finding a place for everyone who tries out, but they believe in the power of education-based athletics and welcoming everyone with open arms.
Volleyball coach Michelle Goodall said her program has six teams run by eight coaches, but the no-cut policy gives all students the opportunity to “compete with the Kennedy jersey on.” Football typically draws an athletic department’s greatest numbers, but head coach Brian White isn’t bothered by the challenges it creates. His varsity team has nearly double as many athletes as the other schools in the district, and he believes that’s a testament to how well Kennedy promotes its programs.
School districts with no-cut sports are familiar with the headaches they can cause. Stecker said greater participation not only means more spending on uniforms, transportation and equipment, but it also stretches coaches thin. That forces them to get creative when scheduling practices or creating rosters for upcoming games.
The volleyball program, for example, might split its sophomore practices into back-to-back, 75-minute sessions instead of holding a single two-hour practice for all 33 athletes. There’s a greater time commitment, but the girls get more quality time with the coaches.
“It creates challenges,” Stecker said of the no-cut policy, “but we’re also getting more of our students involved in our program and having a bigger influence on young kids.”
Coaches and administrators lay the foundation for any successful athletic program, and Stecker believes he has some of the best leaders in Iowa. Most have been around for more than 10 years, and some graduated from Kennedy, finding their way back to the school after finishing their college careers.
John Ross is among those who once wore Kennedy’s colors as a student-athlete. The girls swimming and diving coach is also a building contractor, so his days are oftentimes split between the pool and his full-time job. It’s a hectic schedule that makes for some long days, but Ross has never regretting accepting a role on the coaching staff 20 years ago.
“I feel that I can help our high school aged girls and others really help develop their confidence and a positive self-image,” Ross said. “I find that as a motivating factor for me to continue coaching.”
Girls soccer coach Scott Myers is one of the few Kennedy coaches who has been at the school for less than five years. The program won a state championship during his first season, but he considers his team one of Iowa’s “oddballs” because of his philosophy toward the game.
Myers never puts a player on the roster unless he intends to put them on the field. During the state tournament, he put 22 girls on his team and played each one during every game. His team loves to dance and joke around, and he firmly believes that the relaxed atmosphere gives him an edge in the long run.
“We don’t preach winning, we preach being together and getting better each day,” Myers said.
“I think the biggest thing is being an educator and knowing you have a great impact. If you focus on just winning titles, you’re not going to be successful because if you don’t win, you failed.”
Myers’ approach might cause turmoil in programs where student-athletes value playing time above all else, but coaches insist that’s not the kind of culture that exists at Kennedy. Myers said in his program the parents tend to have a more difficult time with it than the athletes, and in White’s football program he has taught them to believe in the “family” concept — everyone accepts their role and supports one another.
White’s approach is direct, and togetherness has become a focal point of his program. He recalls a visit Kansas State University where he learned about how head coach Bill Snyder uses a 4-by-4 to motivate players. The lumber was inscribed with the word “family,” and it included 16 goals toward success.
White adopted the strategy and each of his varsity players are asked to sign the 4-by-4, committing to the season’s goals. The team carries it to each game, a reminder what it stands for.
“We view things as a family and I tell all of our football players that we’re a family now,” White said. “No matter what happens, our family sticks together.”
That carries over to the classroom, where White and other coaches keep a keen eye on academic performance. Those who participate in sports consistently have higher grade point averages than the rest of the student population. White is a staunch advocate of education-based athletics, constantly checking in on his players and their grades.
White said last year his program averaged a 3.3 GPA, and his staff receives regular grade checks from teachers. If one of his players has a ‘D’ or ‘F’ if any course, they’re immediately flagged to get help.
“We really impress upon the kids if you’re involved in some sort of activity outside of school, your grades are going to be better,” White said.
The last two years, Kennedy was named the best school in Iowa by U.S. News and World Report, a ranking determined by college readiness, graduation rates and state testing. Stecker knows academics and athletics can be a juggling act, but coaches do their best to accommodate athletes. That can be especially difficult at Kennedy, where all student-athletes are encouraged to participate in multiple sports, but coaches often excuse players from practice to make time for their studies.
The hard part is getting students to admit they need help.
“Students want to please everyone,” Stecker said. “Coaches, parents and teachers, we have to be smart enough as adults to step in at the right time when we see them struggling and say, ‘I know you’re under the gun in this class. Go take care of it and get back here.’”
That’s the Kennedy way, and it’s why coaches are more inclined to talk about culture and connectedness than they are about championships. That mindset has existed here for decades, but Stecker is determined to keep it in place by hiring the right people and giving them the resources to build a positive program. During the rare moments when he has to replace a coach, he doesn’t ask about win-loss records and state titles. He wants to hear about the attitude they’ll bring to the program, and the legacy they want to leave behind.
That mindset was molded by Stecker’s own experiences. John Van Fleet was Stecker’s high school science teacher and football coach, and though Stecker initially pursued med school, he couldn’t shake Van Fleet’s influence.
After graduating from college, Stecker himself coached football and taught science before eventually becoming an athletic administrator. Van Fleet, who spent 30 years in high school athletics and served as athletic director at three Illinois schools, was honored in 2013 with the NIAAA’s Distinguished Service Award.
Stecker thinks about the way Van Fleet guided him toward a career in education-based athletics, and he wants Kennedy to offer similar inspiration. Student-athletes may not go on to become coaches or teachers, but with whatever path they choose, he wants his coaches at their side guiding them along the way.
“What we want for students in our activities or programs is to build leadership, to build their resilience, their ability to handle adversity, overcome adversity and come out better on the other side,” Stecker said. “Whatever post-secondary activities (they choose) — college, workforce, military — we feel like we’ve equipped them to handle that.”