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‘Coach Wendell’ leaving impact on players, youth league

Tuesday, July 10, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:18 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Youth basketball coach Wendell Coonce sits during open gym at the Armory Sports Center. He is leading a fundraising effort for a new recreation complex.

In an office cluttered with books on one side and photos of kayaking and his kids scattered on the rest of the wall, Wendell Coonce’s eyes focus on one piece of laminated, unframed paper.

Picking it up as if it were a family heirloom, he shows the article written by Sarah Brunstorm, one of his former basketball players.

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The article came as a surprise. He remembers her handing him a copy of the children’s magazine that published her article and a small photo taken from the end-of-the-year Columbia Youth Basketball Association banquet.

His eyes glimmer as he looks up from the paper and says, “This is one of my most touching things, and it inspires me to keep going. It is what makes all the work and time commitments worth it.”

“A friend, a teacher and inspiration,” is the simple description by his student. As a coach, parent, president of the CYBA and leader in the drive to build a new recreation complex, Coonce is working to inspire youth throughout Columbia.

While coaching during a game, he sits on the bench and directs his players to guard, shoot or dribble. He occasionally stands to see a play, and his scratchy voice cuts through the low hum of the spectators’ conversations.

During a timeout, Coonce springs into action. While the other coach huddles his players, Coonce grabs one player by the shoulders in the center of the court. He makes everyone watch as he moves her around. Every girl watches, then looks at their own feet to try and replicate the movements.

He wears a bright orange hat and blue warm-up pants to the game. He is short, has a sturdy frame from years of kayaking and mountain biking and seems to always have intensity in his eyes.

After the game, he tells his players that he is taking a break from coaching. The girls protest and say they will not play next year, even though he assures them he will find a coach for them, and he will still be around to see their games. Soon after, the girls are back to asking questions about when he will bring ice cream for them.

Sitting directly outside the gym, Coonce is unfazed by the whistles, cheers and tennis shoe squeaks from the next game as he tries to remember the final score. After a moment, he simply tells questioning parents that “13 to 2 is a tough hole to get out of,” or how they might have won if the players had shown up more than 15 minutes before the game. He glides through an assembly line of handshakes from parents and fellow coaches.

He coaches because he wants to see his players’ succeed.

“You’ve seen these kids develop as people over the years, and you watch them grow up,” he says. “It’s something you’ve been trying to teach them since fourth grade and in seventh grade they finally start doing it.”

Coonce grapples for the right words to describe how he ascended from coach to CYBA president. He describes how writing a letter about how the league-formed teams basically volunteered him for a leadership position.

“I was stupid. Gullible?” he says. “This is supposed to be a recreational league, and the teams were kind of getting hand-picked. I wrote a letter saying you need to do what you say you’re going to do. They said, ‘That’s a good idea, why don’t you help us?’”

Ever since, he has helped out. And now that he is done coaching, he will channel his energy into getting a new facility, not only for the CYBA but also for the entire community. He mainly wants the basketball courts “even if they are stacked on top of each other.”

The CYBA plans to raise $4 million over the next two years to build an eight-court facility near the Activity and Recreation Center, 1701 W. Ash St. The Columbia City Council gave the land to the CYBA, and the total project will not cost the city anything. Coonce equates the new facility to an “indoor Cosmo Park.” Volleyball, roller hockey, tae kwon do and other sports and recreation activities will be played on the courts.

With the new facility, Coonce hopes the CYBA will have only one place to play on Saturdays instead of multiple locations throughout the city.

“It’s much bigger than what we need or want because if we don’t get this done, I can guarantee in about two years, it’s going to be on a ballot issue as a tax.” he explains. “You can’t have a town this size and growing like this and not have a facility somewhere, be it private or public.”

Coonce’s main duties with the project will be working with the fundraising committee to raise the money in the next 18 months, review project plans and keep the volunteers and community updated. He estimates he has spent 15 to 20 hours a week on it during the past four to five months. He plans to devote more time once the project is underway, at the expense of coaching.

He started coaching when his son played 10 years ago and has coached all three of his children through the league. In addition to his fifth-grade team, this year he coached a high school team that his foster daughter and Burnstorm play on. The high school league is in its first year, and his beaming smile shows the delight he gets out of coaching his previous players again.

“To have even some of the ninth-grade girls, some of these girls I coached, I never thought I’d get to coach again,” he says. “And the girls that are seniors in high school, I certainly thought I’d never see them again.”

At an afternoon game for the high school team, Kim Coonce sits on the bleachers watching her husband gather up all his equipment and occasionally looks affectionately at her foster child, Indya Shepard. She describes, with the same undistracted manner as her husband, how he balances work, volunteering and family.

“It does affect us all, but it’s such a worthwhile thing, such a worthwhile place to volunteer. He gets more out of it than anyone,” she says. “You know, that’s how volunteer work goes. You end up being the beneficiary of your volunteering.”

One of those changes actually involved their family’s structure when a former player became their foster child. Mrs. Coonce laughingly describes Indya making banana foster for her son’s senior prom, even before she became her foster child. She is convinced the girl must have thought the family was crazy as they all gathered around with a blowtorch, trying to light the banana foster. Shephard laughs timidly and says she enjoys hanging out with the entire Coonce family.

Kim Coonce says her husband adored Shepard while he coached her, and the decision to make her their foster child was an easy one.

“She was not being successful in school and outside of school. She comes from a large family. And we offered to try and help out. And so we are,” she said.

Indya is Coonce’s greatest success story. In fifth grade, she hated basketball and was afraid she would get hurt. Now she is the star of her CYBA basketball team and is proud to talk about being on a team in the Amateur Athletic Union Basketball. She wants to play basketball at the University of Maryland and study zoology.

She describes how Coonce continuously coaches her by training with her at the gym and making sure she eats healthy. He also insists on the importance of completing homework, which is a change for her.

“Since I have the basketball thing, I always focused on basketball and never did any homework,” she says. “But now they make sure to tell me to get my homework done or no basketball. If I didn’t have them pounding on me everyday about it, I probably wouldn’t do it.”

She has become more talkative as she describes her favorite memory from the CYBA. During the final tournament game with the score tied, she scored at the buzzer.

While busy with his volunteering, Wendell Coonce is also successful at this job. As a Lexus Nexus sales representative, he has to drive to St. Louis a couple times a week. His wife says his job works well for the couple because it provides him flexibility to work from home, so their children always had a parent at home. This year, he was the third best seller out of 70 in his area, and it won the couple a much-needed vacation to France.

“My wife said a few weeks ago ‘I don’t know how you are successful at your job,’” Wendell says. “It’s called working smart, not working hard.”

As the game grows increasingly louder in the gym next to him and all his fifth-grader players have left, he starts talking about how working with the team has been a challenge even after 10 years of coaching. The team is composed of at-risk youth who need extra attention. He wishes he could devote more one-on-one time with them in the gym because of the way they respond to personal attention. Often, he tries to instill life lessons that can be taken off the court.

“There are so many factors in their environment that makes basketball unimportant sometimes,” Coonce says. “But when you see them, you don’t think they care. They give you attitude and stuff.”

But they do care, as evidenced by the multitude of phone calls he gets from previous players updating him on their lives. One of his favorite players from a few years ago had a variety of issues while playing for CYBA. Her father was in and out of jail, and she did not have a stable home environment. She moved away two years ago. Recently, she called to talk to Coach Wendell.

“I got that phone call, and I about started crying. She’s doing O.K. She’s still in school, and she’s a kid that as a ninth grader you’d question whether she’d still be in school,” he said.

Another piece of paper Wendell points out in his home office is a poem by one of his players from this year called “To Coach Wendell.” It starts with “My coach. I know he might be hard on you. But that’s how it goes.”

Walking into the gym one day, another coach pointed him toward a wall where all the kids in the school had hung a poem about their role models. While most people wrote about their mom, dad or grandparent. The girl had written about “Coach Wendell.”

Earlier in the year, the girl had hit another girl while playing and had to be suspended for two games. Coonce’s coaching strategy teaches his players to control their emotions on the court. After the incident, he paid extra attention to the girl when she came back from her suspension. His theory is if a player can be calm while competing on the court, they should not have trouble behaving in school.

The poem ends with “My coach has done a lot for me. He’s been having practices with me when I need it. That’s why I’m proud of myself.”


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