One of the iconic coaches in Somerset athletic history has retired.
Somerset volleyball coach Sarah Praschak, one of two coaches who led Spartan coaches who led Somerset teams to WIAA state championships, has retired. Dennis Potter, one of her former assistant coaches, has agreed to become the new Spartan volleyball varsity coach.
Bruce Larson, who has led Somerset to three football state championships, is the only other coach to win state titles in Somerset.
Praschak led the Spartans to the first state championship in school history in 1993. Praschak was known for her high-energy coaching style. She was known for leaping into the air when the Spartans would win a key point. That leaping ability helped her to be a top collegiate player at UW-River Falls.
Praschak spent a total of 25 years coaching volleyball in Somerset. Her coaching was divided into two sections. Praschak coached through the 1998 season, then took time off to raise her kids, before returning to the program in 2006. Praschak has coached the Spartans to six conference championships.
In her final seasons, Praschak got the chance to coach her daughter, Kat. Kat was part of the large senior group the Spartans just graduated.
Praschak said she wasn't intending to retire from coaching at the end of the season. She said several recent events caused her to reevaluate her plans.
"I lost my mom and Dave (her husband) lost both parents recently. My dad is 93, so I'd like to spend more time with him," she said. "I'm going to give my time back to my family."
Praschak said she wouldn't have been able to coach this long without the support of her husband and kids.
Praschak said she also felt comfortable stepping away now because of the progress that was made by the 2017 team. The 2016 Spartans were nearly all seniors, meaning the 2017 team had very little varsity experience starting the season.
"It was a really unique situation," Praschak said of her final season. "In order for us to win, we all had to play in our roles. That's the best team atmosphere, because they all feel like they contributed. The kids didn't look at wins and losses. They looked at what they contributed on the court."
One area where Praschak went against the norm in coaching is not naming captains. She allowed all her seniors to share that role, saying they deserved that recognition if they were able to stay in the program for four years.
Assistant coaches made Praschak's job much easier, she said. She credited Dawn Paulus, Amber Vrieze and Sara Kreibich as being among those who have been part of her staff the longest. She said the coaching staff accomplished a number of events, including a fifth- and sixth-grade program, where the younger girls would buddy with high school players. The Spartans also started a "Dig Pink" cancer fundraiser, which this year raised more than $700.
Praschak said it will be difficult to not be around volleyball on a daily basis this fall.
"It's a passion I've had since I was a freshman in high school. I love the idea of how kids change and grow and develop, starting with the fifth grade program. That's my highlight. Not only to develop skills, but how they grow in personality and teamwork. I hope the kids got from me teamwork and to celebrate in each other's successes," Praschak said.
State championship season
Praschak worked through the details of the 1993 season as if they were a year ago. She said the team was sailing along at 9-0, before getting soundly beaten by Turtle Lake.
"That was the best thing that could have happened. It showed us we were beatable and that we needed some team unity when we were behind," Praschak said.
Praschak credited the players for the maturity to recognize what was needed and they grew together into a formidable team. That doesn't mean there weren't obstacles. In that era, the regional tournament was played in a round-robin format. Somerset opened the regional with a loss to St. Croix Central. Somerset won its final two matches, while Central was defeated once. Somerset won the regional title on a tie-breaker.
"Then we went to sectionals and dominated," Praschak recalled.
In the days before the state tournament, Praschak received scouting reports on the other Division 3 teams in the state tournament. In the first practices, she tried to change the Spartans' style to best matchup against the opponents. That plan soon changed.
"We decided to throw out all the scouting reports and play Somerset volleyball," she said.
Somerset's style was to hit the ball hard in every possible opportunity.
"We rarely tipped or rolled. It was hammer all the time," Praschak said.
The Spartans won all their matches at state, including a match against second-place Cambridge that stretched into overtime.
Potter said that if Somerset starts a Mount Rushmore of coaches, he's worked with two of the obvious choices in Praschak and Larson. Potter was an assistant to Larson in the Somerset wrestling program before becoming the Spartan wrestling coach.
Potter then stepped away from coaching in Somerset so he could coach his daughters in Stillwater youth volleyball. Potter said many of the current Spartans didn't know he'd coached volleyball in Somerset, but he showed them the four conference championship plaques that hang in his classroom from his days as an assistant coach under Praschak and Sara Eichten. Potter was an assistant for eight years in the Spartan program.
Potter is entering his 25th year of teaching at Somerset High School, so he knows many of the girls in the volleyball program. Potter said the 2018 Spartans will be young, with two seniors, Brit Buchanan and Georgia Hammer, returning from last season's varsity team. Potter said he sees coaching as an extension of the classroom.
"The student-athlete gets such an education because their education is two hours longer every day. And the kids want to be here," he said of athletics.