By DAVID MILLER News Sports EditorSClBIt was with sadness that I learned last week of the passing of longtime Ponca City High School teacher A. Lloyd Gelmers.
I didn’t know Mr. Gelmers well, in fact our association was limited to two or three telephone conversations. But, based on what I have heard others say about the man, I know that in his many years as a Po-Hi math teacher he impacted many, many young lives.
How I became acquainted with A. Lloyd Gelmers was through his additional role of having been a boys volleyball coach at Po-Hi.
I had written a column about the state champion sports teams that have come from Ponca City High School over the years and in doing so I had stirred up a hornet’s nest of comments.
The list I put forth did not include the many state championships won by the Wildcat boys volleyball team, which just happened to be coached by Mr. Gelmers.
There was a very good reason for the omission. I worked off a list of state championship teams provided by the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association, which was all fine and good, but the OSSAA list included sports that are currently sanctioned. Boys volleyball ceased to be a sanctioned sport many years ago.
A number of friends very nicely reminded me that Ponca City was a hotbed of volleyball back in the day. Out of their prompting came a column about A. Lloyd Gelmers that first appeared Dec. 30, 2009.
In Mr. Gelmers’ memory, that column is reprinted here today.
There was a glaring omission in my recent column about state championships earned by athletic teams at Ponca City and area high schools. One only has to look up at the championship banners hanging in Robson Field House to become aware of the extent of the omission. A study of those banners reveals that there are 10, that’s right 10, banners honoring titles won by Po-Hi boys volleyball teams.
The list of winners used in the recent column came from information in the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association archives, but included only those sports that are currently sanctioned by the Association. Boys volle y b a l l ceased to be a competitive sports category in the OSSAA in the 1980s.
According to the Robson banners, Ponca City could boast of having the state champion boys volleyball team in 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1983 and 1985.
After a little digging into the story of obvious Wildcat domination in the sport, all leads pointed in one direction, to A. Lloyd Gelmers, who was the one and only head boys volleyball coach at Po-Hi.
Gelmers is now retired. Perhaps what he is best known for is his skill in teaching math. He was a mathematics teacher at Ponca City High School from 1951 to 1993. He won a number of awards for hiswork in the classroom and served as mathematics coordinator for the school district. For his work outside of the classroom, he was named 1980 District Coach of the Year by National High School Athletic Coaches Association. The award covered coaches of volleyball in a seven-state district.
The way he tells it, his involvement in volleyball coaching was just a matter of circumstances.
“We had been playing volleyball (at Po-Hi) with home rooms competing against one another,” he said. “We had what we called the World Series of Volleyball each year.”
“Earl Sullins, who was the athletic director at the time, came to me and said ‘Why don’t we get a group of guys who have been playing and go play other schools?’”, Gelmers remembered. “So we went out to Western Oklahoma, Burlington, I think it was, and played a game there. We didn’t win, they called it pretty loose and we were used to a little different rules.
“After that it was decided we would practice a little bit and at the beginning of the second semester that year we started practicing,” he said. The first year Ponca City fielded a boys volleyball team was in 1968. The first state championship came a year later.
Steve McKay, who served as Ponca City girls volleyball coach for 27 years, was a member of that first state championship team.
“I can name the members of that team,” McKay said. “The team included outside hitter Carl Peterson,” he said. “Then we had 6-foot-9 Pat Froreich, Rodney Christie, Jim Gary, Steve McKay and Dick Coates,” he recalled.
McKay and Gary were the setters, while the others were outside hitters. Coates was an especially gifted athlete that went on to play football at Oklahoma State University.
Another player who played in 1968, but missed most of the 1969 season due to injury was Byron Sudberry, McKay recalls.
While the Robson banners would indicate the first championship was in 1970, McKay disagrees.
“They didn’t hang a banner for us,” he said. “But the first championship was in 1969. I have the trophy to prove it.
“We defeated Wynona, which had won the title 11 years in a row before that year,” he added.
After college, McKay came back to Ponca to teach and in the process helped Gelmers coach boys volleyball, before eventually being named the girls coach. McKay was unsure whether there might not be yet another state championship in the mix.
“The last year we played and beat Jenks, but I’m not sure whether that qualified as a state championship,” he said.
Remembering the early years of Ponca City’s run, McKay said there were around 300 teams that competed in the sport.
“Most were smaller schools. Only Ponca City, Jenks and Norman among larger schools had teams. The state didn’t classify in volleyball and the smaller schools began dropping out. At the end there were just two or three teams left playing,” McKay said.
Gelmers said that Title IX mandates partly were responsiblefor the demise of boys volleyball.
“School districts were looking for ways to equalize the number of sports in which girls and boys could compete,” he said.
“There is wrestling, in which only boys compete. Volleyball only for girls helps even that out,” he said.
Looking back on his coaching experience, Gelmers noted that most of his volleyball players were also his math students.
“Once I figured up how fit they were scholastically,” he said. “They had a 3.59 grade point average as a team. They were easy to coach. You didn’t have to holler at them.”
Both Gelmers and McKay mentioned a team that made a trip to California to participate in the national tournament.
“Since we had won the state championships, one team raised money and went to California,” Gelmers said.
“We won two and lost two in pool play. Then we went to Pauley Pavilion (on the UCLA campus) to watch the finals. That was the one major trip we took.”
McKay, who was an assistant at the time, said that the team that went to California was the best high school volleyball team he has seen.
“In my opinion, we had two or three of the best players in the nation,” McKay said.
Duane Osborne was one of the players on the team and he went on to play at Ohio State and from there into coaching.
Another standout was Dennis Connely, McKay remembered.
“Osborne had a very high vertical jumping ability,” McKay said. “He was the best jumper I’ve seen in 30 years of volleyball. Connely was short, but he could jump.”
McKay, who served as an assistant to the end of the boys’ program, said that he had a men’s team that travelled around to various locations for games.
“One time our men’s team played (the team that went to the nationals) at half-time of a basketball game. I won’t say they won, but we didn’t beat them. They had to call the game because we were taking up too much time. They held their own with a group of men that had 10-years’ experience,” he said.
Gelmers is a 1947 graduate of Po-Hi even though his parents lived in Newkirk and his older siblings attended Newkirk schools.
“They sent me to Ponca City from ninth through 12th grades,” he recounted. “I started out at East Junior High and then finished at Ponca City High.”
After college, Gelmers applied for a job in Ponca City and after interviewing with Supt. J. Win Payne and Principal Homer Anderson, was hired.
“Mr. Anderson was encouraging, but Dr. Payne told me that Ponca City prided itself in hiring teachers with experience, and how difficult it was for an inexperienced teacher to be hired,” Gelmers remembered.
“But later, I got a call from Mr. Anderson telling me I had been hired.”
That was 1951, and for the next 42 years Gelmers taught Ponca City young people about mathematics.
And from 1968 to 1986, he taught winning volleyball to quite a few Wildcat athletes.