GENEVA – Jim Lagger never wanted recognition as a coach.
Too bad, Jim.
On Jan. 28, Lagger coached game No. 1,500 of a volunteer coaching career that has spanned a large portion of his life and has seen him be on the bench for youth baseball, basketball and soccer teams.
The 1,500-game milestone came in a game against the Wheatland Wizards at the Stephen Persinger Recreation Center, but leading up to it Lagger was more concerned about the game itself than any personal milestone.
“I don’t want to be the focus of the game,” Lagger said. “I want the focus to be the kids.”
Which is why he got into coaching in the first place.
The first game
Lagger, who lives in Geneva with his wife, Laura, started as a coach when he was still in high school. He didn’t make the varsity basketball team, but there was a coaching position at his former middle school because of cutbacks. So as a high school junior, Lagger started his coaching career alongside his former coach.
“I was his assistant on the ‘A’ team and he was my assistant on the ‘B’ team,” Lagger said. “It wasn’t like I got tossed into the deep end without a life preserver.
“For me, it was a tremendous opportunity to coach with someone I was comfortable with, and I learned a lot in those two years. I learned I really enjoyed it. Things happen for a reason. If I had made my high school basketball team, things might not have worked out like this.”
Labor of love
One doesn’t arrive at a milestone like 1,500 games coached without having a passion for it, but coaching isn’t the only way Lagger strives to serve.
He works full time with Mutare Software after years with AT&T, and he also spends a few days per month on campus at Illinois State University working with junior and senior business majors to find internships or jobs.
Lagger also teaches night classes at ISU (some on campus, some remote) that offer a real-world look at the world of business, and he also is volunteering with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America in Elgin.
“As my wife likes to say, I have a lot of hobbies,” Lagger said.
Yet coaching always has been a particular passion.
Soon after graduating from ISU, he coached for two years with Strikers Fox Valley Soccer Club, and he later returned to the club for an eight-year stint that included time as the director of the boys’ program. He coached his daughter, Erica, and son, Jason, at Strikers, and when Jason’s time with Strikers came to an end, Lagger stepped away and returned to his roots as a basketball coach.
“That’s what I played, it’s what I love, and it’s what I always wanted to do,” Lagger said.
He noticed some basketball players who wanted to play couldn’t catch on with some of the bigger travel teams in the area, so he teamed with the Geneva Park District to form a travel team and it immediately took off.
In fact, a few of the players Lagger coached on that first GPD Vikings travel team should be familiar to Geneva basketball fans: Jack Hood, Matt Johnston and Joe Tucholski, members of the high school varsity team this season. Logan Popovich, another player from that first travel team, is playing varsity ball for Badger High School in Kinsman, Ohio.
Elise Reader, a former Strikers player, went on to play in college at Louisiana-Monroe, but Lagger never endeavored to coach athletes destined for success.
“I never wanted to take the best teams,” Lagger said. “A lot of people don’t want to take the ‘B’ or ‘C’ teams because it’s more work, but I always take those teams. I always enjoy working with kids who need it the most.”
The day of game No. 1,500, two former Strikers players, Ryan Zima and Matt Sweet, were coaching little ones in baseball, basketball and soccer on the other side of the gym. Lagger’s approach to coaching helped inspire them to follow in his footsteps.
“One thing he did that I appreciated was he was always positive,” Zima said. “He was always building you up and he never shot anybody down.”
Christie McKittrick, mother of GPD Vikings eighth-grader Cal McKittrick, said that her son gushed about Lagger’s approach to coaching at an end-of-season gathering last year.
“Cal said, ‘He taught me about life and helped me be a better person,’” Christie McKittrick said. “I thought, that was coming from a seventh-grader. It shows how dedicated he is to developing kids on and off the court.”
Fran and Melissa Cassidy, whose son, Michael, is an eighth-grader on the team, both agreed Lagger’s kids-first approach has made basketball that much more enjoyable for their son. Lagger’s coaching style definitely left a lasting impression on Sweet.
“He was very positive and very impactful for sure,” said Sweet, a senior at Geneva. “He made practices fun and games a blast.
“A lot of coaches have influenced me, but coach Lagger has been the most influential.”
The end of the road
With the Vikings, Lagger made the choice to coach fifth-graders and follow them through their eighth-grade seasons. His current crop of Vikings are mostly eighth-graders, which makes this season, his 20th as a coach, his last.
“Twenty years is a nice round number, and there are things I’d like to do at the Boys and Girls Clubs and I’d like to expand what I’m doing at ISU, so the time is right,” Lagger said. “I’m sure I’ll miss it.”
Seeing as he has never been paid to coach it won’t be the paycheck he’ll be missing, but walking away will be tough.
“The most satisfying part is getting letters for thank you cards from the kids in their handwriting at the end of the season,” Lagger said. “That says a lot.”
He will miss seeing players grow and progress, not only as athletes but as people, as well as the chance to give kids who want to play a sport a chance to do just that.
He never sought recognition, but it has found him anyway, and he hopes that his brief time as the center of the story inspires others to volunteer their time as youth coaches.
After all, Lagger’s time as coach has been nearly perfect.
“People have asked me, ‘Would you change anything?’” he said. “And I have to say no, I’d do it all again.”