BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – On the side of any picture of the Holy Trinity Girls volleyball team for the past 25 years has been Melissa Freesmeier. And a lot of the pictures are from the state volleyball tournament.
Freesmeier is in her 25th year with the volleyball program and has multiple state tournament appearances, two state titles, and a Gatorade state and National Player of the Year to her credit. But she say’s it’s the circle of friends and family that will be her legacy if and when she steps off the court.
“You know – my greatest legacy is getting the best out of these kids year in and year out and I’m not just talking on the volleyball court, but as people, too,” Freesmeier said Wednesday afternoon.
“As much as I teach them, they teach me every year. How to give to people outside of volleyball. This is a community. It started in the late 80s and these people come back and want to know how things are going. I met with some former players over the weekend in Iowa City and these parents and kids care about this program. I’m just fortunate to be a part of this special thing.”
She’s clearly had some success on the court, as well, starting with a 1996 state championship with Marquette that she says is one of her greatest memories. Freesmeier said other teams were predicting that team to finish fourth but the girls kept their cool throughout the tourney.
“We weren’t picked to win. We had battles all year with good teams in the area and we went up there and the expectation with everyone was ‘who are these guys’,” she said.
“That team put us on the map. My setter, Molly Holtkamp, made the All-Tournament team along with Julie Mohrfeld. They weren’t cocky. They were confident and they had fun. That memory of that last point hitting the floor and us being able to take my first championship was just huge. And those kids to this day stay friends. It’s a really cool feeling when they come home for Christmas.”
After the merger in 2005 that combined Marquette and Aquinas into one education system, Holy Trinity has been a force in Class A volleyball in the state. It is no longer ‘who are these guys’, but ‘here come those guys’. Banners hang throughout Shottenkirk Gymnasium in tribute to Freesmeier’s success as the leader of the Crusaders.
Three navy blue Gatorade banners hang in tribute to Michaela Foecke, who was named a Gatorade’s player of the year in Iowa on two occasions and its National Player of the Year in 2015. Banners for trips to the state tournament including runners-up and champions hang as well. Freesmeier took the 2015 Crusaders all the way to the state title and then returned in 2016 before being knocked out by eventual champion Janesville.
Freesmeier has more than 800 wins and has coached in just under 1,100 games. She said this year’s 7th graders have demanded that she stay until they graduate. At the current pace, Freesmeier would surpass 1,000 wins in about 5 years, which would make those 7th graders seniors at HTC.
But she’ll always have seventh graders and always have support from the community. Her timeline is all based on her energy levels and passion for the game, which don’t seem to be waning anytime soon.
She said it’s the support of the community, parents and kids, and a passion for the game in the community that makes her job easier.
“I think it’s the support that we get from the school, community, parents, and kids. And every year – it’s hard to believe, but they come in every year ready to work because of the teams before them. They have a passion for the game and we try to make it fun, but it’s a lot of work to play volleyball here at HTC,” Freesmeier said.
Freesmeier, who also teaches P.E. and health at HTC, says it was softball that had her attention in college at Culver-Stockton. After graduation she came back and began coaching junior varsity basketball and volleyball at Marquette in 1988 before taking over the varsity volleyball team in 1992.
As one might expect, Freesmeier’s perennial powerhouse volleyball squads did garner her some attention from colleges looking to build volleyball programs.
“I’ve had a few opportunities at some colleges and I thought about it,” she said. “I talked to my family at the time and my friends and a good friend of mine said, ‘Look around you. Why would you leave?’ I’ve never regretted my decision. I look forward to the kids every day at practice. If they’re gonna put it all out there, why would I leave. My kids are here in the area and support this program and what it stands for so I just might be here awhile.”
She said the years have helped hone her passion for the game, but she did have some mentors and idols as she built her program.
“I actually did develop a passion for this game on my own, but if you would have asked me out of college, Janet (Allgood) Berry was a mentor of mine back in the late 80s and she really knew how to motivate the girls,” Freesmeier said. “Janet taught me a lot about the game of volleyball and it takes more than Xs and Os to relate to teenagers. Pat Summit is an idol and a hero to me in pushing kids past their own expectations. And my dad is a big sports guy and I always listen to him. He taught me about sportsmanship and never having that ‘in your face’ mentality.”
She said the changing characteristics of the students has been her biggest challenge in the past 25 years. But she’s been able to find ways to motivate the players.
“I think just trying to motivate every day can be tough. You have to find new things. You can’t be stagnant. Things have changed and the kids have changed,” she said. “Their ability to focus has changed so you try to stay with the times and find something the kids can relate to. I have a great staff and have been fortunate to have those kinds of assistants and that’s just awesome. Sometimes spouses say I see them more than they do during the season, but that’s the level of support we have here.”
She said this is the first year she could remember having a player whose mother also played for her so the circle’s starting to overlap, so to speak. Freesmeier said that circle of support is one of the best things about coaching and keeping those relationships with past, present, and future players is a high priority for her.
“They know I’m always there for whatever they need. I see them a lot, especially during the holidays. It’s normal to just talk about what we used to do and the fun we had and some of my crazy antics.”