November 19, 2021

Brebeuf celebrates three state championships in fall sports

From top to bottom: The boys’ soccer team of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis earned the Indiana High School Athletic Association Class 2A state championship on Oct. 29; Brebeuf’s boys’ cross country won the Indiana High School Athletic Association state championship on Oct. 30; Brebeuf’s girls’ volleyball team claimed the Indiana High School Athletic Association Class 3A state championship on Nov. 6. (Submitted photo)

From top to bottom: The boys’ soccer team of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis earned the Indiana High School Athletic Association Class 2A state championship on Oct. 29; Brebeuf’s boys’ cross country won the Indiana High School Athletic Association state championship on Oct. 30; Brebeuf’s girls’ volleyball team claimed the Indiana High School Athletic Association Class 3A state championship on Nov. 6. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Ted Hampton tried to find the right words to capture the emotional journeys that three sports teams of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis traveled during a jam-packed 24 hours on Oct. 29-30.

Brebeuf’s athletic director finally shared this thought, “It’s overwhelming in such a positive way. It’s like having three weddings in 24 hours.”

On the evening of Oct. 29, the Brebeuf boys’ soccer team won the Indiana High School Athletic Association Class 2A championship with a 3-1 victory over the team from West Lafayette High School.

The next day, Brebeuf’s boys’ cross country team finished first in the IHSAA state championship, outrunning teams from much larger schools across the state.

And later that day in a semi-state match, Brebeuf’s girls’ volleyball team won a five-set thriller over the team from Silver Creek High School, setting up its trip to the Class 3A championship on Nov. 6—a match that the Brebeuf girls won in another five-set thriller over the team from Belmont High School.

Each of the teams faced adversity on the way to their state championships. Here’s a look at their seasons through the perspective of their coaches.

‘We became a family’

After more than 40 years of coaching soccer, Brebeuf’s boys’ head coach Carlos Zavaleta approaches the sport he loves this way, “Soccer is just a game. As coaches, we try to teach life through soccer.”

And one thing that Zavaleta believes about life is that’s it’s filled with ups and downs, so it’s best to keep calm, focused and forward-looking through it all.

Which is exactly what he did when his team’s first nine games ended with seven losses and two ties. While understanding that his team had faced a tough early schedule, he also made changes in the way he used his players. And he kept preaching a constant message.

“In order to succeed in a team sport, you have to become united, you have to become a family. From the beginning, we talked about respect for each other, the coaches, the other teams, the refs, the parents—for everyone. When you have that respect for each other, you start bonding. One of the things that brought us together was that we kept picking each other up through that tough time. It’s like being part of a family.

“After that, the main message was, ‘To just trust, to believe in yourself.’ I knew we had good talent, and if they continued to work hard and buy into the system, that was all just preparation for what was to come. We started to win, and the belief became bigger and stronger.”

Zavaleta credits the seniors and captains of the team for embracing that message and fostering it in their younger teammates.

“A big part of our success was our leadership,” the coach says. “Not just our assistant coaches and captains, but our upperclassmen, too. They kept repeating the message and believed it. It wasn’t easy at times, but once the leadership buys in, the younger kids follow it.”

It all led to celebrating a state championship together.

“There were a lot of emotions—mostly how difficult it is to get to that point, let alone winning it,” Zavaleta says. “It was very special. I love these kids. Once they brought that love to each other, we became a family.”

‘It’s a dream come true’

Before the boys’ cross country state championship, Brebeuf’s head coach Karl Knerr gathered his team for the pre-race ritual he has developed during his 32 years of coaching at the school.

Together in a circle with their coaches, the seven runners prayed the Hail Mary, asking the Blessed Mother to keep them from injury. Then they prayed the St. Ignatius Prayer for Generosity, a prayer Knerr uses to take his runners’ focus off themselves and onto running “tough and strong for God.”

The last part of the ritual ends with Knerr telling the youths, “Remember why we do this—for the greater glory of God!”

As his team headed for the start line, Knerr thought about how this season was his hardest year of coaching, as some of his key runners struggled with injuries. Now his team was healthy—the intention of his daily rosary for the previous six weeks.

In 2019 and 2020, Knerr had watched his teams finish third in the state meet. This year, as always, the 1974 graduate of Brebeuf—and a captain of his cross country team back then—hoped for something more.

“It would be nice to give back to the school I love, that has given so much to me,” he says.

He could sense that possibility of something more coming into shape as he watched his runners cross the finish line.

“It was beautiful to watch them all come in. Right after they finish the race, they know to wait for each other—until the last brother comes in. When they were together, I told them, ‘Regardless of what happens, I’m proud of you. We did our best.’ ”

Their best turned out to be the best in the state.

“They wanted that state championship,” their coach says. “For what we had to do to get there, the looks on their faces were priceless. It was just pure joy. Being one of the smaller schools to have ever won, it’s a dream come true. And it means everything to me to bring a state championship to Brebeuf.”

Still, for Knerr, the championship wasn’t the only reason to celebrate this team.

“They form this great brotherhood. The seniors have been incredible mentors for the younger runners. This is something we’ll always have forever.”

The joy of being blue

Four days after the Brebeuf girls’ volleyball team won its state championship, head coach Kathryn “Kat” Haughs had one important change she needed to make in her office.

For the past year—ever since Brebeuf’s team lost in the 2020 Class 3A state championship match—a second-place, red-ribboned medal was on prominent display in Haughs’ office, an ever-present reminder from the coach to her players that there was more work to be done to win a state championship.

So on that Wednesday afternoon, Haughs had the great satisfaction of replacing the red-ribboned medal with this year’s first-place, blue ribboned medal. The emotion and thrill of winning the five-set, championship-match thriller still flowed through her.

“I always tell my kids I’m not an emotional person, but that’s the first time I’ve cried as a coach,” Haughs says, in recalling the moment the team clinched the championship. “I was so proud of all the kids.”

The head coach wasn’t the only one crying after the championship. Tears of joy flowed from many of the players as they swarmed together in a group hug.

Haughs views the state championship as a reflection of the team’s talent, hard work and chemistry.

“Team chemistry is a priority,” says Haughs, a parent of a 2-year-old daughter and a 5-month-old son with her husband Will. “I tell the girls that during the season, we’re like a family. You don’t always have to like each other, but you have to love each other. We do a lot of team-bonding activities to keep the kids together.”

That focus on team chemistry reflects a change in Haughs, a longtime club volleyball coach now in her third year of leading Brebeuf’s program.

“My approach is much different from when I first started,” she says. “When I started, it was all about competition, all about winning. Now, my goal is that when they leave through my doors in four years, they’re going to be confident servant-leaders. I see a bit of a bigger picture these days. I think the wins and the trophies are a by-product of happy kids who have a balanced life athletically, socially and academically.”

It’s all led to a joy that continues.

“The girls are just reliving it each day.”

So is the school, after winning three state championships in nine days.

“There’s such a buzz around the campus,” Haughs says. “It’s just electric around campus.” †

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