Gustie Women’s Athletics: A Family Affair for Hall of Fame Coach Gretchen Koehler

Posted on November 25th, 2020 by

Four Gusties from the 1986 MIAC championship team are currently in the Gustavus Athletics Hall of Fame.

Travelling in a passenger van, eating sack lunches, and sleeping on floors. No, we’re not talking about some random Little League team – this was the state of affairs for Gustavus’s first women’s athletic team to participate in a national championship.

The 1975 Gustie “Bees” volleyball team loaded up a 15-passenger van and travelled to Kearney, Neb. for the Region IV Tournament where they posted an 8-1 record and received an invitation to play in the AIAW national tournament in Pocatello, Idaho. Throughout the regional and national tournaments, the Gusties did not have any extra money to eat at restaurants or stay in hotels, so they shopped at local grocery stores to fill sack lunches and made arrangements with churches to sleep on their floors.

“When we drove a 15-passenger van that limited how many players I could have,” says Gretchen Koehler, a Gustavus Athletics Hall of Fame coach, most notably for her 26 years at the helm of the volleyball program. “It was sad for me, especially in volleyball, because I couldn’t keep 25 people. I’m glad that’s changed because it is such a valuable experience to be part of a team.”

For Koehler’s student-athletes, there were no shortages of valuable team experiences.

After joining the Gustavus athletic department in 1968, Koehler elevated women’s team sports from essentially the recreational level to full-on intercollegiate competition, which included Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference competition in the early 1980s.

Koehler admits that the relationships formed over the years are what she remembers and cherishes the most, but she still has fond memories of the accomplishments made on the court.

“I’m mostly proud of our All-Americans because it was so hard to be an All-American for these older players because there were not many stats,” Koehler says. “Amy LeClaire-Sachs, Linn Erickson, Val Flom, and Debbie Jungwirth.”

All four All-Americans from the 1984-1986 seasons are in the Gustavus Athletics Hall of Fame. One memory of Koehler’s pairs together Hall of Fame ability and a sense of humor.

“In the Morris tournament, Amy [LeClaire-Sachs] was a really good jumper and she jumped in the air and cranked the ball down the line and face-packed the defensive player, literally knocked her over, hit her in the face with this powerful spike,” Koehler recalled. “So underneath the net the ball is still in play; it bounces off her face and is still in play and Amy is under the net asking the player if she was ok, and that she was sorry. The ball is still going back and forth, while Debby Jungwirth is tracking the ball down and wondering who she should set and Amy yells out, ‘don’t set me.’ We were laughing so hard I had to call timeout.”

Koehler’s great sense of humor made her one of the most beloved coaches in the history of the Gustavus women’s athletics program. After the Gusties won the first MIAC volleyball championship in 1982, Koehler was not shy about celebrating the inaugural title with her players.

“I left and went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of champagne and a bunch of small Dixie cups and brought it back to the gym so we could celebrate our championship,” Koehler said with a laugh. “Each player maybe had only two ounces, but I probably should have been fired because the people at Macalester said there was no alcohol allowed in the field house. But I said ‘it’s all gone now.’”

Koehler’s impact on the Gustavus women’s athletic program is profound. Soon after being hired she developed a more organized program with established schedules, first in basketball in ’68, then volleyball in ’69, and softball in ’70. Between coaching volleyball, basketball, softball, and tennis during her 28-year career at Gustavus, Koehler amassed a total of 672 career victories. At the time of her retirement, Koehler ranked as the fifth-winningest coach in the history of Division III volleyball. She led the volleyball team to four conference titles and five national tournament appearances. Perhaps her greatest achievement is the impact she had on her athletes – most of which were never recruited to play sports but instead wanted to get an education at Gustavus and were interested in sports as well.

“I never left campus to recruit anybody,” Koehler says. “I never went to any summer programs and I never went to any tournaments. I got the names of women who were interested in the sports I was coaching through the admissions office.”

Whether it was the coaching style of Koehler or the natural athletic ability of her athletes – likely a combination of both – there are currently 15 women in the Gustavus Athletics Hall of Fame who played for Coach Koehler. Those relationships between coach and former players continue to flourish to this day.

“I love spending time together with former players and that happens on a regular basis,” Koehler says. “These players are my family.”

 


7 Comments

  1. connie fortin says:

    Wonderful story! Fire up bees let’s go! Gretchen is awesome. I am lucky to have played for her!

  2. Chris Mathieu, 1974 says:

    I agree Connie. Some of my fondest memories are of playing for Gretchen… I’d go back to college in a heartbeat mostly because of the enjoyment of playing for “Coach”. Love ya Gretchen!

  3. Becky Jensen Detert says:

    Thanks to Gretchen for making women’s athletics a possibility…. both in college and in MN schools as her students went on to start high school programs in the early 70s.

  4. Joanie Goehl says:

    Nice write up, Gretchen. You had 2 of my daughters play for you, Jayne and Sue Goehl. I had such fun when you all would sleep on our floor when you came to Edina. Your players were all winners and such close bonds developed. Thanks for all you did with them all. Hope you are enjoying retirement and feeling constantly happy over your excellent career at GAC. Joanie Goehl

  5. Patricia Mickow Gerchy says:

    Great article Coach Koehler! I have the best memories and the best friends, from the teams you put together. Thank you for all you have done for women’s athletics. Proud to be a former player and friend!

  6. Betsy ("Bee" Barnes) Cochrane says:

    To this day, I remember everything about my volleyball, basketball and tennis careers. (these days you can’t even play three sports!) The bonds you create with your teammates and partners never leave you. When we reunited for our 40th v-ball anniversary, we had so much fun – just like we were in our twenties again. And, coach Koehler was the driving force in forming us into this amazing cohesive, fun and hard working machine. We just never wanted to quit!