This coming fall, I’ll be well into my 23rd year as a member of the Sauk Valley Media sports staff.
I imagine in many ways it will be like the previous 22. I’ll still cover a football game every Friday night. The occasional soccer match, volleyball game, or golf tournament during the week will be thrown in for good measure. Hitting deadline each night will be a headache, as it always is, and a reason for celebration when it is done successfully.
Yet there will be something very different about this coming fall. Two of my favorite coaches to deal with here at the paper, Pat Lessner and Val Gassman, are hanging it up after combining for more than a half century of service to their schools.
Lessner has been the golf coach at Dixon High School since 1979. He guided the Dukes to the state tournament in 1983, when they placed 11th, and in 2009, when they placed seventh. On the girls side, the Duchesses qualified for state in 1979 (16th place), 1981 (third) and 1984 (seventh).
The 1981 team had six team members, but only four were available for state. One of them, Liz Nehls, had the flu.
“I said, ‘You can decide if you want to play or not,’” Lessner said, “but if you don’t, we cannot do well as a team.’ She played, she stuck it out, and we ended up finishing third, only four strokes from first.”
Lessner’s two most accomplished boys golfers were Duke Franklin and Mitchell Homb.
Lessner remembers Franklin as a golfer with an insatiable appetite for golf. Franklin would drive his car near the ninth green at Dixon Country Club so he could continue practicing his short game in the dark.
“It was just unbelievable,” Lessner said. “He was like a sponge. He just could not get enough, so I just kept on teaching and teaching and teaching. That was so fun.”
In 1986, when Franklin was a senior, he and another boy were tied for the lead on the last hole at the state tournament. Franklin drove his ball into the rough, in casual water. He asked for a drop, was denied by the observer, went on to bogey the hole, and lost state by one stroke. Lessner witnessed it all.
“That definitely left a bad taste in his mouth,” Lessner said.
Homb placed 11th at state as a sophomore, fourth as a junior, then won it all as a senior in 2010. He now plays at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
“Even when Mitchell was off, he found a way to win,” Lessner said. “He was just exceptional.”
Golfers without Franklin’s and Homb’s talent and drive, however, perhaps benefitted the most from Lessner’s steady hand as a coach.
“There’s a lot of kids that came out just to learn to play golf,” Lessner said, “and then found out they could play a little bit better than they thought they could.”
One of those success stories is Ryan Dixon, who didn’t play golf as a freshman, but decided to join the team a sophomore. He wasn’t particularly good, but stuck with it. By the time he was a senior, he put together a sectional-winning performance and earned a trip to the state tournament.
Lessner was an accomplished golfer himself, as his two Lincoln Highway Tournament titles (1976, 1992) will attest. Back trouble doesn’t allow Lessner to play anymore, but he’s still around the sport.
Last summer, I was fortunate enough to have him in my cart for the last day of competition at the Lincoln Highway. He was there to follow Homb, his former player, as well as the other players in the final group, which included myself. We had a great conversation all day long, which, looking back on the situation, probably helped me more than I realized.
On the 20th hole of the day, I snap-hooked a drive that only stayed inbounds because of a friendly bounce off a tree. A large group of onlookers fell silent, and I trudged back to the cart.
“Hang in there,” Lessner said.
A fairway wood up the middle, a nice wedge onto the green, and a converted 4-foot putt later, I made an unlikely par. I looked over to the cart, and Lessner had a huge grin on his face.
I almost felt like one of his players for a day.
Gassman was an assistant cross country coach at Newman in the early 1990s when athletic director Mike Papoccia suggested she get certified, so she could become a head coach. She did just that, went to summer clinics to learn the ropes, and became the Newman boys and girls cross country coach in 1993.
“Every morning and every night, it was God, don’t let me screw up,” Gassman said.
Gassman’s first team had three girls and two boys. One of those girls, Shelley Schaefer, placed 19th at state in 1993.
For the next decade-plus, Gassman plugged away. Participation, as opposed to outrageous success, was what she preached.
“My philosophy is work hard, 1 day at a time, have fun, and give them the joy of running that would last a lifetime,” Gassman said. “I had no expectations of winning. It was just for the love of the sport. I loved coaching.”
Winning, however, eventually found its way to Newman. In 2007, the Comet girls finished 12th at state – the only time a Newman girls team has advanced to state.
That same year, a boys team led by Jake Trancoso won the Erie-Prophetstown Invitational. It was a watershed moment for Gassman.
“That is burned into my mind,” she said. “That was the very first time we won something. We had been second and third, but we had never won anything as a team. I was so excited, and I knew we had something special brewing.”
In 2008, Trancoso picked up a worthy sidekick in Dylan Reyes, who gave up football to run cross country. That duo, along with a strong supporting cast, put together a Class 1A state championship season in 2009.
“It was like the planets were aligned,” Gassman said. “That group of young men was phenomenal. Everybody on that team was special, and they always will be special.”
I had the pleasure of covering that particular state cross country meet. After talking to a few athletes, I coaxed Val to quieter section of Deweiller Park, so I could hear her over thousands of screaming teenagers and adults.
She was so happy, she could barely speak. That’s what I remember most from that day.
The Comets have continued their success. They finished 12th at state in 2012, and 14th in 2013.
For Gassman, however, the job wasn’t the same. On July 14, 2013, Joe, her husband of more than 27 years, died, and that changed everything.
“The reason I got into this was because of Joe,” Gassman said. “He could see the passion, and he gave me the courage to set myself out there. As a coach, people don’t realize how much pressure there is in high school to produce. He was my rock, the one person that regardless of what happened, I could go home and talk to. Half the time he didn’t know what I was talking about, but he was the one person that had my back.
“When you’re a coach, I think you need that one person. I found it very difficult last fall, without having him to share stuff with.”
After the season ended last fall, Gassman announced she’d be stepping down. She also gave up her varsity girls track coaching job, a position she held from 2000-2013.
Instead, she’ll coach in what she anticipates will be a less stressful environment. She’ll help out with the Sauk Valley Saints, a team with runners from four Catholic middle school schools in Dixon, Sterling and Rock Falls.
“We had our first meet the other day,” Gassman said. “They were running around like ants at a picnic.”