By BRIAN JENNINGS
On Tuesday, Nov. 24, Southington coach Rich Heitz was inducted into the Connecticut Scholastic Women’s Volleyball Hall of Fame. Former Southington athletic director, Dr. Robert Lehr, presented Heitz’s award to him in front of his wife, daughter, family, and friends at the eighth annual induction ceremony and dinner, which was held at the Aqua Turf Country Club in Plantsville. Heitz said that the feeling of receiving such an accolade has not sunk in yet.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” he said. “I don’t think it’s anything that anyone can react to right away. It puts a lot of things into perspective and makes you reflect a lot about the time that you’ve been involved with the sport and coaching athletes. It was a little emotional when I gave my speech.”
One of the major points Heitz made in his acceptance speech was how rewarding it is to build relationships with former players that he has coached over the years.
“A former player that you’ve coached years ago comes to your CCC semifinal with her daughter to watch her game,” said Heitz. “I got a photo from a former player, Colleen Myers, in Long Island with her newborn dressed up for Halloween. I also got a text from a player, who set the school digs record in college. I had the opportunity to see two of my former players take their high school teams to the state championship.”
Heitz also said that he was thankful that his wife and daughter had the patience to allow him to pursue his passion to coach the sport of volleyball.
Other 2015 inductees included high school players Marina M. Rose (Coventry), Tessa Smolinski (RHAM), Kate Whalen (Cheshire), and volleyball official Marie Lavin.
When asked about why he got into coaching girls volleyball, Heitz said that he always enjoyed the sport, especially when he was first introduced to it in middle school. From there, Heitz developed a love for the game.
Heitz grew up in Middlebury and attended Pomperaug High School Southbury. Although the Panthers didn’t have a boys volleyball team at the time, that didn’t stop Heitz from getting involved. At the age of 18, he joined adult leagues and played outdoor beach and grass volleyball a number of Friday evenings at the University of Connecticut.
In his late 20s, Heitz was sidelined by a shoulder injury, but he saw a posting for an assistant coaching position under current Wethersfield girls volleyball coach, Debbie O’Brien (has been coaching Wethersfield for 26 years). Heitz coached at Wethersfield for seven years, until he received a phone call from former Southington athletic director, Lehr.
“The Southington position opened up, and Bob Lehr called to put a recommendation in and get some information,” said Heitz. “I was happy where I was coaching, but I had lived in Southington and coached Southington kids in club. I talked to Bob Lehr, and he tried to talk me into taking the Southington job. It was one of those things that in life when you’re presented with an opportunity, you never want to look back on it and say that you wish you did or I should have. I talked to Deb O’Brien at length, and she was really supportive.”
Heitz took over the Lady Knights volleyball program as the head coach, and has held the position for the past 15 years. Heitz said the 2015 team that he coached this past season was one of his favorite groups throughout all of his years of coaching.
“They embraced the team concept,” said Heitz. “It was not about any one individual. It wasn’t about who was going to be the star or who was going to be this or that. They worried more about being successful as a group rather than any one of them being successful themselves. I really chalk it up to the maturity this senior class showed, trying to establish that mindset in the underclassmen, while also having success on the court.”
Seniors Kelsea Allen and Sylwia Lewkowicz were selected to play in the 2015 Volleyball All-Star Game.
Heitz holds an all-time record of 255-76 as the head coach of the Lady Knights volleyball team. Out of his 15 years coaching Southington, Heitz has two CCC tournament titles (2008, 2010), four CCC tournament finals appearances (2003, 2005, 2006, 2009), one Class LL state title (2009), and 13 Class LL state tournament appearances, including two finals (2009, 2011), two semifinals (2012, 2015), and five quarterfinals (2003, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2014).
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at BJennings@SouthingtonObserver.com.