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In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sunday's in The Blade's Sports section. Blade sports writer Steve Junga talked with John Buck, the highly successful volleyball coach at St. Ursula Academy.
One of Ohio's top high school volleyball coaches actually caught the competitive bug of sports from his early experience in baseball, first as a youth league player and later in a brief stint as a 17-year-old coach.
In between, he earned All-Great Lakes League baseball honors his junior and senior seasons (1974-75) at Bedford, where he also played varsity basketball.
Buck filed away his brief coaching experience for about 15 years, resuming when his daughter, Michelle, was in fifth grade and her volleyball team needed a coach. That started a journey that ultimately led Buck, 52, to become one of the winningest coaches in any sport in City League history.
Between 2000 and 2005, his St. Ursula teams reached the Division I state volleyball semifinals six straight times, winning a state championship in 2004 and ending as runner-up in 2000 and 2005.
The Arrows have gone 312-60 (.839) during Buck's 14 seasons, basically ruling the sport in northwest Ohio during this decade, which has seen eight City titles and nine district crowns. From 2000-06, the Arrows once racked up 139 straight wins versus teams from northern Ohio, including 81 in a row in CL play. When St. Ursula won its state title with a 29-0 record, that started a D-I state-record 57-match winning streak which ended in the 2005 state final.
The 2000-05 stretch coincided with the careers of St. Ursula's four Florian sisters - Erica (1998-01 seasons), Sarah (2000-03), and twins Allison and Emily (2002-05) - who helped the Arrows to a 163-9 record. Five of the nine losses came in state final-four matches.
Most memorable was the 2004 semifinal match. St. Ursula trailed five-time state champion Cincinnati Seton 2-0 in games and 23-19 in Game 3 before rallying to win an epic 39-37 battle and stay alive. The Arrows then rallied from a 24-20 deficit to win Game 4, and took the deciding fifth game. Energized by this refuse-to-lose effort, they breezed to a 3-0 win over Cincinnati Mother of Mercy to win the title.
First-team All-Ohioans during Buck's tenure were Amy Pfohl (1998), Kaycie Carr (2001), Sarah Florian (2001-03), Alison Mugler (2004), Allison and Emily Florian (2005), and Alliya Drzewiecki (2006-07).
This year's team finished at 23-3 on Wednesday with a loss to Amherst Steele in the regional semifinals.
Buck's full-time job is as a fuel handling superintendent for Consumers Energy at the J.R.Whiting plant in Erie, Mich. He has been on the board of directors of Toledo Volleyball Club the last four years after previously heading up the club. He also coaches the TVC 14-1 youth team.
Buck and wife Pamela have been married for 32 years and have two daughters - Michelle Hunt, and Sarah Buck - the latter who is a St. Ursula assistant coach.
"I'M THE OLDEST of six in my family. There were four boys and two [younger] girls. Everyone played sports, and it was a big part of our childhood. My parents were great. They ran us all around the town to practices and never missed a game. They were very supportive, and still come to most of our matches.
"I have such fond memories of the seven years that I played 3B [Bedford youth] baseball. Five of the seven years my teams won the league. A neighbor, Dick Cole, was a 3B coach and he had two sons older than me. He would work with them in their large yard, and I can remember as young as seven years old he would allow me to get right in with them. He worked with the three of us for hours. My high school coaches also impressed me with their knowledge and ability to bring the best out of each of us."
"I TRIED TO pattern myself after the coaches that I respected. I had several outstanding coaches while I was growing up. They all had a few things in common - they knew their sport well, they knew how to teach it, and they treated us with respect. If they didn't know everything that they needed to know, they had assistants that did. I do a lot of reading and watch the latest volleyball coaching DVDs. You never know what you might be able to incorporate into your training sessions.
"My first experience coaching was right out of high school. My Bedford baseball coach wanted to know if I would be interested in coaching my old 3B baseball team, the Bobcats. It was 13-to-15-year-old boys. He told me they had some talent, although the year before they went 4-14. I was only 17, but I gave it a try. I fell in love with coaching. We went 14-4 and won our division, and I was hooked. Even though I only coached that one year, I knew I would get back into coaching someday. I was just too involved with playing sports myself back then to be able to devote the time needed."
"WHEN MY OLDER daughter was in the fifth grade, they needed someone to coach her volleyball team. Mike Aldrich, whom I didn't know, also had a daughter in fifth grade. He offered to help me as long as I helped him coach basketball. By the time softball rolled around no one stepped up and I became the head softball coach, and Mike agreed to be my assistant. We coached together for the next four years, and became good friends.
"What I like best about coaching is practice. I like the interaction that takes place, knowing when to push and when to pull back. It's different with each athlete and team. I like watching a team progress through the season."
"I LOVE VOLLEYBALL. It's so exciting to watch a well-played, high-level match. I like putting together game strategy, where you look for your opponent's weaknesses and what you need to do to be successful.
"Sarah Florian was blessed with so much talent, but what most people didn't know is that she worked very hard year round to maximize her talents. She was working out with a personal trainer long before most other athletes were, at least in our sport. She was very humble and one of the easiest players to coach. She never looked at the stats. If we won, that was all that was needed. Her elder sister, Erica, was a setter and right-side hitter who set the tone for the long successful run we had. As good as Sarah's record was, the youngest Florians, Emily and Allison, actually had a better record [108-6]..
"I never took winning for granted. I appreciated every trip to the final four. Each team was unique and special. I remember a media person asking me right after we lost a heartbreaker in our fourth trip in a row, and not winning the title, if it would have been easier [emotionally] to never have made it into the final four? I told him that we would continue to come here and give it our best shot. Unless you make the final four you are never going to win it."
"I'LL BET I'VE watched games 3, 4 and 5 of that 2004 semifinal at least 50 times. The first 49 times I was still worried that we might lose. It was the most unbelievable match that I've ever been involved with or watched. The third game was intense. We fought off three match points. We also were down 20-24 in Game 4 and ran off six straight points. Then we won Game 5. That 2004 team called themselves 'The leftovers.' All they kept hearing was how they wouldn't be as successful without the [graduated] class before them. They used that to motivate themselves like no team before or since. They didn't believe that anyone would, or could, beat them."