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1980 Sycamore volleyball team wins a bigger battle

The 1980 Sycamore volleyball team celebrates and poses for pictures with their Class AA championship plaque.
The 1980 Sycamore volleyball team celebrates and poses for pictures with their Class AA championship plaque.

Every Wednesday, several members of the 1980 Sycamore volleyball team get together to play in a recreational women’s league, or as Leann Thompson (née Schepler) calls it, “the old-lady league.”

There, they continue to play the sport they love, a sport upon which they have a long-lasting impact in the area. Sycamore volleyball has been a powerhouse for many years, and the 1980 team that went all the way to the state quarterfinals was crucial in building that program.

Beating the odds

Eight years before the Spartans’ run to the state tournament, a historical piece of legislation was passed for women’s sports. That law was Title IX. Although it is regarded highly today, many supporters of boys high school athletics were threatened by it.

“There was a general feeling across the country that this Title IX business is going to make schools divert money away from boys athletics and force them to fund girls athletics,” said Lori Bross (née Seegars), a senior captain on the 1980 team. They were resentful of that.”

Bross said some of that resentment was even held by members of the school administration. When the team asked about hosting an invitational tournament, it was said that nobody would come.

While this was going on within Sycamore, other schools were getting ahead. Bross said that Sycamore and other rural communities didn’t have the club systems that the Chicagoland teams utilized, which contributed to the dominance of those urban schools at that time.

For all those disadvantages, the Spartans had a major asset: a passionate coach. Jeff Welcker had played intramural volleyball at Northern Illinois University as well as recreationally on club teams, and he was – and still is – extremely passionate about the sport.

“I demonstrated and participated in all the practices in a very active way. I was able to demonstrate all the different skills,” Welcker said. “I think I conveyed enthusiasm to them and was able to know some of the nuances of the game that not all coaches back in the early ’80s did, because volleyball was a little bit of an unknown entity at the high school level.”

Welcker’s passion made him an intense leader, but not one who wasn’t open to a little fun. He made the team practice on Halloween, something they weren’t happy about, and he yelled in the locker room when they were late. He didn’t know their plan until they all stepped onto the court in their costumes, and the normally strict coach suddenly became laid-back.

“He just busted out laughing,” said Thompson, a junior middle front on the team, “and he went and got his camera and took pictures of everybody, and we continued to practice. That was a fun moment.”

There may have been consistent chemistry, but the play on the court wasn’t always reliable. At a time when there were only two volleyball classes in Illinois, Sycamore was matched up against much bigger teams in conference play. There were highs and there were lows, but the team still came close to finishing on top.

“If we would’ve won one conference game against Oswego, we would’ve tied for first place in the conference. And we had up-and-down games. The consistency really didn’t hit until we started regionals.”

Finding a way

The Spartans picked a great time to peak. They rolled through regionals and into sectionals. There, they fell behind in the second set. Welcker saw his team reeling, so he called upon Kim Moberly, whose serve had been powerful but erratic throughout the season. She led them to 10 consecutive points, and the Spartans rode the momentum to wins in the next two sets. It essentially summed up how the entire year went for them.

“It was a surprise season,” Welcker said. “We fell behind in different games, and I had different girls step up and play really important roles in coming from behind.”

The underdog role continued into super-sectionals, but this time, they had much more support behind them. While they had only been cheered on by parents and a couple close friends in the earlier matches, many students packed into a school bus for super-sectionals to see them take on Sterling.

They would not be disappointed. The Spartans again had trouble early, but much like sectionals, they found an advantage and rode it to victory.

“Sterling was supposed to win that game,” Thompson said, “but we started to find out that their holes were on the sidelines of the court, so we would aim to hit the hole, and that worked out great.”

The win sent them into states. Maybe it made a statement to their detractors, but at that moment, all the players felt was pure elation.

“We were just ecstatic,” Bross said. “We were on cloud nine. Like most of our games along the way, we were so surprised that it was almost hard to believe. It’s one of my greatest memories from high school.”

Their trip finally ended in the quarterfinals against Springfield-Sacred Heart, but it was an extremely successful season that carried over into many more for Sycamore. The 1980 team certainly gained respect for female sports in the community, but its intentions were elsewhere.

“It wasn’t the foremost thing in our minds,” Bross said. “We were playing because we loved to play volleyball, and we loved to play together.”

As any of the participants in the “old-lady league” will say, that passion from more than 30 years ago still hasn’t faded away.

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