By Tony Hooker
Like many successful coaches, Dan Sappenfield began his career almost by accident, becoming an assistant coach for the Villa Grove junior high before ever coaching at the high school level. For Villa Grove Heritage, it’s a good thing he did. Sappenfield, whose team has a chance to win twenty games or more in back to back seasons for the first time in school history, recently won his 200th game at the helm of the Blue Devils. I recently had a chance to sit down with the coach and discuss what it means to him to reach the milestone, along with his team’s chances at the upcoming IHSA St. Joseph regional tournament and a lot more.
When did you start coaching in Villa Grove?
It was in 2003, I was an assistant junior high girls’ coach under Sarah Jones.
How many years did you do that?
I did that one year, and then I was an assistant at the high school level for three years under Todd Shunk. Now this is my fourteenth year of being the head coach.
Are there any differences coaching girls versus coaching boys?
I feel like you coach them the same. Guys can probably do some things more instinctually probably, because they’ve played more or watched more outside of practice with the coaches, but I appreciate how the girls are more respectful of the game. I’m probably too old school, but all the extra motions when making baskets or scoring on the opponents is getting out of hand in the boys’ game. I’ve always said that until you get paid to play the game, you’ve got no right to act like that.
Winning 200 games is a testament to your longevity. There has to have been some special moments along the way, right?
There are, but it’s hard to pick them out because every team has its own uniqueness to it. The conference championship that we won in 2013 was pretty special, going undefeated in the conference. Another time was the year that we beat Shiloh to win the conference tournament, and they went on to finish third in the state. Those resonate for you pretty well because they’re big victories, but I don’t want to discount all the others. It’s hard to put a value on any game, because everyone is special.
It’s easy to see the impact you’ve made on your former players and assistants by the number of them who were in the gym Saturday night, trying to see you win your 200th. That has to feel good, right?
The most disappointing part for me was us not completing the task that night, seeing how many people were able to come back. I didn’t know anything about that, thanks to my son doing all this stuff and organizing it on Facebook. I don’t have Facebook, so I didn’t know anything about it! <laughs> Coach Beal came by several times and went right by my office and went in to talk to Drew. I didn’t know what was going on! All those kids and former assistant coaches, everyone I’ve coached with except for one, who I have so much respect for, coming back meant so much to me. And then we took care of it on Monday.
It’s got to feel really good, knowing that you’ve had that much of an impact on so many people, right?
After we won on Monday to get the 200th, all I did was answer text after text from area coaches and former players, offering their congratulations.
Is the old saying that you remember the losses longer than the wins true?
Yes, it probably is. You definitely remember those tough losses. Saturday night is still fresh. <smiles> There are those times that you think “Darn it. What if..”. Us coaches, we hang onto it forever. The good thing is that for the kids, by the time they get back on the bus, they’ve forgotten about it. Us coaches and parents relive it over and over while the kids are on to the next moment. Not that it doesn’t hurt, but they can forget faster.
You drew a three seed for the upcoming regional tournament. Does that seem right to you.
Yes. We tied for the two seed with SJO, but they beat us head-to-head so they got the nod. Two or three doesn’t matter, because we go to the same place. I’m pleased with where we’re at with it. I thought we could be a one, two or three. We just have to get back to the level we were playing at the Bismarck holiday tournament. If we play at that level, we have the potential to win the regional. You have to get that kind of effort.
You’ve beaten the #1 seed, correct?
Yes, we beat Bismarck-Henning, the one seed, we beat Unity, the four seed, and we had the two seed, SJO beat, losing an eight-point lead in the final few minutes. We learned from it and we’ll take our chances.
What’s the future hold? How long are you going to keep doing this?
As long as I still enjoy it and I can still have an impact on kids and they respect what I’m doing, I’ll keep going. I’ve got grand kids and I’m being told that I have to stay around for Aaliyah and Adalynn. A lot of my former players who were there Saturday night have kids now and they were telling me that I have to stay around and coach their girls! <laughs> I want to give a big thank you to everyone who helped coordinate Saturday’s events. It’s always about the team, but it was a special night. When we lost on Saturday night, Kyleigh Block was so upset. She said that “It’s always about us, and we wanted this for you,”. To see that sort of drive from the kids was special. We’re in this together, in fact that’s how we break our huddles, saying “together”, so that was a neat moment for me.