The shift in the Illinois High School Association calendar which moved volleyball to the spring gave Rich Meyer additional time to decide if he was successful enough in his battle with stage 4 bone cancer to return as Unity’s head coach.
Two weeks before the Mustangs were scheduled to begin practicing, Meyer leaned toward resigning.
“He was going back and forth to the doctor two or three times per week,” Unity senior Jersey Hesse said. “He told (Unity assistant coach) Charlie Bolton, ‘It’s just not fair to these girls.’”
Word circulated back to the Mustangs, so Hesse initiated a project designed to lift Meyer’s spirits.
She collected video clips from players within the Unity program, others who had a relationship with Meyer and a six-minute piece from Bolton and combined them with pictures and music to create a 20-minute video filled with heart-felt memories and pick-me-ups.
A day or two after Meyer received the finished product, Bolton called him just to catch up.
Meyer’s response made it all worthwhile.
“He told him, ‘Charlie, I got that video and I cried the whole way through it,’” Hesse said. “He then said, ‘I’m coaching these girls. It gave me a sudden boost of energy.’ That was probably the greatest thing I could have heard.
“It truly felt like I was able to help him and told himself he was coming back to coach because of how much we love him and miss him. It made me feel good it was able to put a spark back in him.”
Determined as he was to be a part of this season, Meyer never had that chance.
He was forced to take a health-related sabbatical from coaching before he coached a single practice, and he lost his battle with cancer this week. Meyer passed away Tuesday at the age of 74, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most successful high school volleyball coaches in Illinois and decades worth of players and coaches who benefitted from his impact.
His interim replacement at Unity is one of those.
Seth Klusmeyer, who engineered a highly successful 14-season run as Unity’s coach from 1999-2013, was hired for his first paid coaching job nearly 30 years ago while still in college when Meyer gave him the chance to work with the junior high program at Central.
“He meant a lot to me and the program,” Klusmeyer said while fighting back the tears. “He meant a lot to so many.”
It’s because he coached and demanded so much from so many.
Throughout a career spanning back to 1980 that featured stints at four different Adams County schools, Meyer won more than 800 career matches, led four teams to the state tournament, guided Quincy Notre Dame to a state championship in 2011 and was named the Herald-Whig Coach of the Year four times.
His success coaching at both QND and Unity — he was named Coach of the Year at both schools — made Wednesday night’s matchup at the Pit emotional and special.
Before the match, a moment of silence was held in his honor, drawing tears from many.
“It kind of shook up quite a few of us girls,” Hesse said.
So they leaned on each other.
Hesse and teammate Taylor Nichols, a junior, embraced in a long hug after the moment of silence, and after the starting lineups were introduced, the team gathered together. This was their moment to shoulder each other’s grief and show what a family truly is.
Hesse said it’s been that way all along.
“Sometimes we like to talk about Coach and sometimes we try to avoid it depending upon how everyone’s mindset is right then,” Hesse said. “But before the games, we love giving tributes to him.”
Last week, Unity faced Liberty, another program Meyer had coached, after hearing the news he was going into hospice care. Both teams gathered before the match in the center of the gym floor at the Mendon school, listened to a prayer Hesse had penned and dedicated the season to him.
“It’s nice to know you’re not the only one who is hurting,” Hesse said. “He impacted every single one of us, not just the six he put out on the floor. Every time someone gets upset, you’re grabbing them by the jersey and pulling them in for a hug. If you’re going to let it out, we’re going to let it out to each other.
“It’s been absolutely phenomenal the way we’ve supported each other. If anybody’s upset, the whole team is going to be there to pick them up. We’re all going through it.”
The 25-15, 25-18 loss to QND didn’t change that.
The effort, the determination and the drive on display, especially in the second half, is what Meyer taught and what he preached.
“It’s been an emotional week,” Klusmeyer said. “It started last week when he went on hospice. There’s nothing we can do about it, but it’s still in the back of everyone’s mind.
“It was about trying to play hard and make Coach Meyer proud.”
In the end, the Mustangs know they did.
“Tonight, with the team we went against, they had phenomenal blockers that were up against us,” Hesse said. “We tried not to be intimidated when we swung, and we had to trust our defense was going to be there to cover us. His biggest thing was block coverage and covering your hitters.
“We have to be able to trust each. We tried to do that at every turn, and that’s something he would be proud of. He would have been proud that we put the trust in each other and kept picking each other up. He made sure we did that.”