Schmidt a bridge between Spartans’ state tourney teams

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE • Grundy Center girls’ basketball assistant coach Danielle (Zimmerman) Schmidt poses next to the Class 2A state championship trophy she and her Spartan teammates earned in 2005. Schmidt has helped to provide a link to the past while helping this year’s state tournament team achieve its own successes.

GRUNDY CENTER — The idea of moving back home was met with some trepidation, but the basic premise was to eventually get more involved with the community they grew up in and the high school they both graduated from.

Danielle (Zimmerman), her husband Dana Schmidt and their two sons relocated to Grundy Center from Boone shortly after the Toreadors’ prep volleyball season ended, when Danielle was done with her head coaching duties. But the minute their family returned home, Danielle was immediately drawn back to her Spartan roots.

And now she’s providing Grundy Center with a link to the past and a bridge for the future.

“I think we were a little unsure coming back to a small community and we wanted to get involved right away, but there’s so many people who already have been involved for so long,” said Danielle, “so the fact that we were welcomed with open arms was amazing.”

Danielle was instantly recruited to the volleyball coaching staff by Lori Willis, who was an assistant to head coach Darwin Sents when the Spartans went to state during Danielle’s junior and senior seasons. By the time Grundy Center’s run to the state semifinals ended in November, basketball season was in full swing, and Spartans head coach Matt Lindeman was looking to add to his bench as well.

“Obviously basketball was not part of the plan,” Danielle said. “It’s my first time coaching basketball, the JV team was a great team and went undefeated, and to have varsity have this kind of success is awesome.

“I get caught between not wanting to relive 2004 and 2005 but also trying to use that as a motivator.”

Danielle was a regular reserve when Grundy Center went to back-to-back Class 2A state championship games in 2004 and 2005, falling to Underwood the first time through before beating Tri-Center in a thrilling comeback victory in the last state title game played at Veterans Memorial Auditorium.

Her memories of those moments are still surreal, especially now that she gets to share them with a Spartan squad she helped get back to the state tournament for the first time since her senior year.

“We hadn’t done it for a long time then,” Danielle remembers. “We were this group that tried hard and was athletic, so it’s been fun to share experiences and everybody’s been so welcoming and giving us great opportunities and we’re just blessed to be a part of it.”

It turns out Danielle’s high school sports experiences are eerily similar to those the modern-day Spartans are enjoying.

• She was one of eight juniors on the 2004 state basketball roster, four of which started; this year’s squad has 10 juniors and five of them start.

• In Schmidt’s junior year, the Grundy Center volleyball team fell in the semifinals; this season’s iteration of Spartan volleyball suffered the same fate.

“This is really fun and a really awesome experience going down [to state] for basketball and it’s even cooler having Danielle with our coaching staff since she was on the last team to go down there,” said junior guard Sydney Mathews. “Now we get to start this up again and go down after 15 years.”

Because it’s been so long since the last Spartan voyage to the state basketball tournament, not many members of Grundy Center’s current roster recall much about back-to-back Spartan state finals.

“She said I slept through the entire game,” junior Cora Saak said of her mother, Tiffanie, an assistant coach alongside Lindeman and Schmidt.

“Cora and her older sister (Tiana) I took and I remember them sleeping because it was a late game and it had kind of gotten to where it didn’t look like Grundy was going to be able to come back, and all the sudden they were back.”

Danielle said she has tried to apply some of the lessons she learned from her many state tournament successes those 13 years ago without putting any pressure on the current wave of Spartans to match them.

She even contacted a number of her former teammates to assemble a booklet of inspiration for the girls’ basketball team prior to their regional final victory over Pekin.

“It was great knowing they had some advice and they had our backs of what we were going through,” said junior Kylie Willis. “I knew a lot of those girls because my mom coaches volleyball so I was in the gym with them even when I was very young. Some of them are still in the community, too, so it’s great you still get to see them.

“[Danielle] means a lot, she brings a lot of different qualities to our team: the energy, calmness from being in these situations before, and she’s very knowledgeable about each sport. She’s really grown close with all of us and we have a great relationship with her.”

In addition to a lineup that featured some future collegiate athletes — Nicole Vander Pol played basketball at Iowa; Chelsea Luhring played basketball at Drake; Katie Schuller golfed at Winona State; and Danielle played volleyball at Minnesota State — the prevailing message from Schmidt’s former teammates was how important everybody on the court, on the bench and in the stands were to Grundy Center’s success.

“Just from their letters you can tell they had a total team atmosphere, they cared about one another, they didn’t care who was scoring the points and I think that really represents our team pretty well because in the end that’s how you have a successful team,” said junior Hailey Wallis. “You can also tell from their letters they had a lot of grit and determination, which is something I think we mimic too.”

So far the Spartans are on track to replicate some of the things Danielle was able to accomplish during her heydays.

“I’m thankful I have that opportunity again, not just to go to state but to be a part of this close-knit, successful, good-mannered team,” she said. “God’s just opened this door and this opportunity has been unbelievable.

“It’s a great experience and it took everybody and it takes all this team effort and the community support, which is not something you get in just any town you go to. Having the girls realize ‘we were at the game,’ or their parents told them they were at the game, or ‘we have pictures from the game,’ it’s cool to have that reflection but just enough of an age gap that they were there, they heard about it and now they get to enjoy it themselves.”