A crash course on the court Volleyball: When Laura Heinz took over for a popular coach at Howard, she met resistance from players because of her inexperience. Now, the Lions are glad she came aboard.

November 01, 1998|By Stan Rappaport | Stan Rappaport,SUN STAFF

She is not afraid to ask questions.

"As a teacher I know there is no such thing as a bad question," said Laura Heinz, who teaches computer science at Howard. "I don't feel stupid asking questions."

One of her first questions was this: How many players to a side when the volleyball match begins?

It's not a stupid question for someone who knows nothing about the sport. But when she asked it, Heinz had taken over as varsity coach of Howard's volleyball team. The players' reaction was predictable.

"We were just appalled," said senior Ophelia Tindall. "We couldn't believe they were giving us a coach that didn't know anything about volleyball."

Why, indeed, would Heinz become the varsity coach when she admitted to having no experience in the sport.

And why would the Howard administration name a first-year teacher with no coaching experience to lead a team with nine seniors?

Craig O'Connell was a popular teacher and veteran three-sport coach at Howard. One of his sports was volleyball, and he had started practicing with the team in August.

But three days before school opened, O'Connell was temporarily reassigned to the central office. Because of this, Howard needed someone to take over the volleyball team.

Heinz had worked at Howard in the spring as a long-term substitute. She told the administration that she wanted to get into coaching, and to let her know if something was available.

"I wanted to have an assistant position in any sport," Heinz said. "That way I could learn."

O'Connell's transfer caught everyone by surprise, and Howard didn't have a lot of time to hire a new coach. Principal Mary Day asked Heinz if she would take the job.

"I was not going to pass up the opportunity," said Heinz, who didn't understand at the time the complexity of the situation.

Heinz held her first practice in the middle of the week. A day later she took the team to River Hill for a multi-team scrimmage. A day after that, on Friday, Aug. 28, O'Connell, a devoted family man with five children, tragically took his own life.

"I was really, really upset," said Tindall. "It hurt everyone on the team because everyone looked up to him and respected him so much."

Suddenly, Heinz was not replacing just a beloved coach. She was replacing a beloved coach whose death had hurt so many people and left so many unanswered questions.

"I had a lot of emotional and difficult situations to get through," Heinz said. "It was a trying time."

The players did not make it any easier for her.

"We gave her a hard time at the beginning," Tindall said. "We were very difficult. We didn't want to listen to her, and we were very short with her. We acted like little kids."

"I couldn't agree more," said Heinz. "I had a really, really tough time in the beginning. It wasn't the most pleasant time of my life.

"I remember I was very upset one day and when I got home I asked myself, 'Do I want to do it bad enough?' and the answer was yes."

A person who had worked with O'Connell before and knows the sport came to Howard to offer assistance. But he had conflicts with the players, and left shortly after he had arrived.

That left Heinz.

"It's not the first time in the county that a person has helped out without as much experience as you would like," said Howard athletic director Vince Parnell. "This is not a unique situation;however, you usually find this in JV sports.

"People who had more qualifications and who wanted to do it could not work out their schedule," Parnell added. "To be honest, I don't know what we would have done if she hadn't stepped forward.

"What she is doing is not the easiest thing in the world. She's really helping out, and for the anyone to criticize her would be very unfair."

Senior captains Tindall, Julie Newhouse and Lia Bernstein led the practices, and Heinz read as many volleyball books as she could. But Howard struggled early, losing its first four matches.

The Lions did, however, get some needed assistance. Darrian Chapman, a sportscaster for WRC-TV-4 in Washington, came to Howard in mid-September for a story on running back Gerald Smith. He ran into one of the volleyball players, found out about their situation and offered to help.

Chapman played soccer, basketball and baseball at Howard before graduating in 1983. He played volleyball on the club team at the University of Massachusetts, and coached the boys nTC volleyball team at Amherst High School for two years.

"I really like coaching and instructing," said Chapman, whose busy schedule allows him to come to Howard only twice a week. "It was a real tough situation for them, and I thought it was an area where I could help."

And Chapman, a Columbia resident, couldn't be happier. "I absolutely love it," he said. "The kids listen and are eager to learn how to get better. And it's nice to go back and contribute to my alma mater."

Heinz and the players are very happy to have him.

"I wish he could be there more often," Heinz said.

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