Coaches play critical role in shaping the school's mission among athletes at Pontiac-based school: 'God, family and Notre Dame'
PONTIAC — Before every varsity football game, players attend Mass in the school chapel. Prior to taking the court, basketball players recite a favorite prayer. And at the start of cross-country season, athletes attend an overnight faith retreat. In an activity easily dominated by aggressive parents and fans, sports at a Catholic school remain highly competitive. But behind the scenes, those who enjoy it most — the athletes and those who coach them — form a special bond that cuts through the noise of winners and losers. It is a bond rooted in faith and fellowship.
Athletics at Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Pontiac has always been more than teaching hand-eye coordination or helping an individual realize his or her potential on the court or field. It is about showing students they are capable individuals, regardless of skill, who have the benefit of participating and being part of a collective team. It is also about showing student-athletes through example how to emotionally respond and behave in a way that leads to virtue formation in the Marist way while preparing them for leadership in the 21st century.
The men and women who coach these young athletes are the secret sauce to the school’s success in that regard.
“When we hire coaches, our primary concern is, ‘Are they mission-centric?’” said Betty Wroubel, the school’s longtime athletic director and varsity volleyball coach. “We challenge our coaches to move beyond the X’s and O's of their sport and to infuse our faith in all that they do. It is our goal not to miss the opportunity to help form good Christians, upright citizens, and academic scholars in our practices, contests, and other team events.”
Wroubel said that philosophy “goes against the grain” of a typical school athletics program, where winning at any cost can sometimes be the norm.
“It may be counter-cultural, but it is our belief that we should and do have a highly competitive athletic program in our Catholic, Marist setting and still practice good ethical (fair) play, teamwork, respect, and sportsmanship,” she said.
Aaron Crouse, assistant athletic director, said whether it be at Notre Dame's lower, middle, or upper school, there is an expectation that coaches create an environment that is an extension of the classroom that focuses on the same morals, values and positive character traits that are taught during the school day.
“Coaches are essential in helping to reinforce the Notre Dame mission to athletes and families. Above everything else, people build programs. We are incredibly fortunate to have a coaching staff that is comprised of individuals that are both highly regarded within their own sports for their accomplishments and also committed to living our mission,” Crouse said. “Each season we specifically challenge our coaches to answer the questions, ‘What does the mission statement mean to you as a coach and what does it look like within your program?’”
First-grade teacher Kimberly Kriesel has coached Notre Dame's cross-country team for three years alongside head of school Andy Guest. She said faith and the school’s mission is evident in everything the team does.
“Prayer is very big among our team. We begin each practice with prayer," Kriesel said. "This year we have student chaplains who begin each practice with prayer. It’s a great way for us to come together, bring God and those we are praying for front and center as we begin practice. We also pray before each race. Each team will huddle before the race and say a ‘Runner’s Prayer’ ending with imparting Mary Seat of Wisdom and St. Sebastian, patron saint of athletes, to pray for us. It’s a powerful moment amidst the race anxiety and commotion prior to the start.”
Kriesel said bringing Christ on the field or the court is a game-changer for Notre Dame athletes, and it translates into everything students do — from respecting other competitors to cheering on teammates and striving to maintain high grades while balancing homework, extracurriculars and day-to-day responsibilities.
Beyond the faith aspect, Kriesel said coaches try to teach confidence building, time management and leadership skills that can be translated into life beyond Notre Dame.
“As a coach, I try to teach students confidence and self-belief not only as a runner but as a person. It’s common to doubt yourself as a runner, especially a new runner, but reminding them that they are strong and capable and helping them to recognize their improvements whether it’s accomplishing a 5-minute mile or 11-minute mile. Every gain is a victory, on and off the course and worth celebrating,” she said.
God, family and Notre Dame
P. Jason Whalen, one of Notre Dame Prep’s social, emotional, and academic counselors, has been coaching high school athletics in some fashion for more than two decades, nine of those years for Notre Dame. A varsity football assistant coach, assistant freshmen basketball coach, and head middle school basketball coach, Whalen has seen firsthand the impact of the school’s mission-based coaching on its athletes.
“On multiple occasions over the last eight seasons, we have invited our opponent to join us in prayer after a game, both after wins and losses and both parochial and non-parochial schools,” Whalen said. “After a hard-fought battle in competition, we set aside those differences and come together to give thanks for our blessings and opportunities. We pray for the health of our teammates and our families, and we pray for strength and courage throughout our seasons. It is one of the most inspiring events I have been a part of as a coach. Our faith helps us to keep things in perspective.”
It is a culture, he said, that permeates through the Marist teachings: to think, judge, feel and act as Mary in all things.
“The term ‘culture’ is a hot topic in the coaching world. It’s standard belief that team culture is directly connected to success," Whalen said. "Coaching at a Catholic school gives us an opportunity to center the way our teams think, feel, act, and perform around our identity as Christian people, upright citizens, and academic scholars. It gives us a standard to hold student-athletes accountable towards, a benchmark to be disciplined towards.”
As a coach and a father of two upper school students, Whalen said it is personally important to emulate what he teaches at home and on the field.
“First and foremost, I believe that we as coaches must model the school mission. We must put our faith at the center of our work with student-athletes. They might be teenagers, but they can be very perceptive. They know hypocrisy when they see it,” he said.
Like Kriesel, Whalen said a key characteristic of the athletics program at Notre Dame is the lifelong bonds created through positive role models and faith-based coaching.
“In my opinion, athletics at NDP are truly co-curricular activities. Meaning, they are truly tied into the curriculum. While no grades are issued, or credit awarded, the desire to fulfill our mission as a school is absolutely woven into the way we teach and coach,” he said.
Some of the traditions he is most proud of are the pre-game Mass with players and the Caveman Cookout.
“Every game day the team gathers in the chapel for service immediately after school. It’s the perfect way to set aside the stressors of the school day and to re-center us on the good stuff — God, family, and Notre Dame," Whalen said. "We also have a unique tradition we call the ‘Caveman Cookout.’ Prior to our first scrimmage, the boys and their dads get together to grill some meats. Our dads get the opportunity to talk about their sons and present them with their game jersey. It’s a tremendous bonding experience for our football community.”
Middle school religion teacher Mark McGreevy, a 1976 Notre Dame graduate, has a long history of coaching for the school, dating back to 1978 as assistant swim coach for Notre Dame High School in Harper Woods. Since that time, he has served as a soccer coach for the middle school, developed an intramural basketball program at the lower school, and is in his sixth and fifth years respectively as boys’ varsity swim coach and girls’ varsity swim at NDP. He said whether it’s in the pool or in the classroom, the school’s mission is not just something that “happens.”
When asked how the school’s mission impacts his coaching style, McGreevy said, “Christianity is not something I can turn on because I coach, it is interwoven into the fabric of my being. Being aware of what I do on the deck is key.”
For students, McGreevy said he tries to show them understanding that God gives everyone gifts.
“For the high schooler this mean their job is to take that gift and do it as best as they can. For a coach who had that gift, it is to hand it off and by example, teach the high schooler that they too should one day hand off their gifts to someone else whatever those gifts are. And when you look at what is handed off by a coach, it is not just a sport but rather many more tangible skills," McGreevy said. "I can’t turn my religion off and on, it is permanently on display."
Living the school mission is also important. In the past, he said, the swim teams participated in one service project together a year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it was working with Forgotten Harvest or the Wounded Warriors Project. It is something he wants to get back to doing.
“We try to find something that puts others first,” McGreevy said. “We have had team and family dinners which we will be returning to. I especially enjoy the family dinners as it puts a perspective on our priorities. It also creates a strong bond among the swimmers.”
Entering her 14th season of coaching girls’ basketball at the junior varsity and varsity level, Kathleen Offer, director of enrollment management, said athletics is an important part of a student’s day at school. Students learn some important life lessons that can positively influence the rest of their lives, including how to work with others toward shared goals, how to be responsible and accountable, and how to keep trying when things get tough.
Offer agrees with McGreevy that coaches don’t necessarily teach athletes what it means to be Catholic on the court. Rather, the teachings of the church and the Marists come through the individual coach’s compassion and how coaches try to live their own lives as positive role models.
“At the start of every week I have a player pick a virtue she’d like our team to focus on, like resilience, bravery, trust, or perseverance. We’ll start practice by defining the virtue, reflecting on it with a prayer, and thinking about how we can embody it like Jesus or Mary did. Throughout the week I’ll reference the virtue on an ongoing basis and compliment the girls when they exhibit it,” Offer said.
Offer said while teaching basketball skills and preparing for competition is important, focusing on faith formation and virtues adds a valuable dimension to the experience.
“Incorporating those things into our daily lives helps the girls understand that the school mission doesn’t stop when they get to the gym,” Offer said.
A longer version of this article first appeared on the website of Notre Dame Preparatory High School and Marist Academy. It is republished here with permission.