“He’d run through a wall for the team.”
It’s a quote that is commonplace in the sports landscape. And it’s one that certainly is apropos for the Sandburg High School (Orland Park, Ill.) boys’ team. But in this case, it would be the Eagles’ players that would run through a wall for coach Sean Airola. That’s how much excitement Airola brings to the position and how much respect his players pay him in return.
Together, the combination of Airola’s teachings and plenty of outstanding execution on the court led the Eagles to the 2011 Illinois High School Association boy’s state volleyball championship—Sandburg’s fourth in school history and first since 2000.
It also has resulted in Airola being named the 2011 Mizuno/Volleyball Boys’ High School Coach of the Year.
“He has a great relationship with the players,” recently graduated Sandburg middle blocker Bill Siroky said. “It’s really unique. He has our respect. We will do whatever he asks. He is always upbeat and happy. He makes it fun to play volleyball. Even if we lose, instead of getting down, he brings us back up and gets us back up where we needed to be. It’s his greatest strength.”
Airola, who was the head coach for two seasons at Joliet (Ill.) Township (2006-2007) and just completed his fourth year in the Sandburg boys’ program, chalks his coaching acumen up to his simple love of the game.
“I feel like I’m just as passionate as the players are about the game,” said Airola, whose team was 3-2 at one point and finished 39-3 after beating Naperville North by a combined 19 points in the state-championship match. Sandburg won its final 19 matches of the season.
“They can feel it and they can see how passionate I am. I give them a good base of what needs to get accomplished during a match. The kids play the game. I just sit back and watch sometimes.”
Sandburg outside hitter Jason Fox, a recent graduate, begs to differ with this version, which seems to be Airola’s attempt to downplay his importance to the team’s success.
“He goes above and beyond the expectations of the players,” Fox said. “His passion and love for the game inspires all of us. He has as much passion if not more than we do. We’ve been playing for years in high school and club and he matches it on the court. If we have a bad day on the court in practice, he finds a way to make it into a good day. Coach has your back and that gets you fired up.”
Fox also was a major fan of how Airola, the son of longtime former Providence Catholic High School (New Lenox, Ill.) girls’ coach Nan Airola, prepared the team this past season.
“He’s a motivator,” Fox said. “You are never in a drill with him where you feel it’s uncompetitive. He gets the most out of each practice.”
Siroky recalls an instance where Airola compared himself to Miami Heat basketball coach Erik Spoelstra in terms of a coach being blessed with vast amounts of talent on the roster. Siroky strongly disagrees with that assessment.
“Talent is only one part of it,” he said. “You have to bring the talent together. That’s difficult for a coach to do, especially in his first season. Talent is only one small part of winning. No matter how talented you are, other teams are just as talented. Coach did a great job of bringing the best out of all the players not only individually, but as a team. He got us to play our best at the right time. What he did was incredible.”
Originally published in August 2011