You may recall the tragic story of a beloved Minnesota high school girls gymnastics and golf coach who died suddenly while shoveling snow during a storm in early December.
Well, this incredibly sad tale may have an inspirational twist, thanks to members of the New Prague (Minn.) High girls gymnastics squad who have somehow discovered a renewed focus in hopes of winning a state title to honor their longtime coach.
A teacher and coach in the New Prague school system since 1980, Matt Shetka suffered a deadly heart attack while clearing his driveway during a snowstorm on Dec. 9. His team had participated in just two gymnastics matches this season, his 34th as head coach.
In the ensuing days after losing their seemingly healthy 54-year-old mentor, the Trojans posted their worst score of the season, as detailed in a fantastic Star Tribune feature.
"The first couple of days were really hard on all of us," New Prague senior gymnast Jaimie Niedermayer told the paper. "None of us could do anything at practice."
"It was our strongest start to a season ever," added Doug Amundsen, who served as Shetka's assistant for 22 years and stepped in as head coach after his friend's death. "Then, we had a major setback when Matt died. It took a toll on all of us."
The school's holiday break provided a two-week break from the mental agony of competing while attempting to cope with the sudden loss of a coach who, according to New Prague activities director Brad Skogerboe, "was an awesome teacher as well as an awesome coach. He had a way to relate to all kids."
However, since the calendar turned to January, the gymnastics team has recorded their four best scores of the season in their four meets of the New Year, including a winning score of 146.4 points at the hometown New Prague Invitational, the Tribune said.
"He always wanted his teams to be good," Jaimie Niedermayer's identical twin sister Jessica told the paper. "He applied all of his knowledge to make our team the best it could be. Now it's up to us to make coach Shetka proud."
The team's recent performance has the Trojans ranked second in the state and thinking about delivering a fourth state championship in their fallen coach's name. In addition to finishing runner-up seven times, Shetka won gymnastics state titles in 1984, 2001 and 2003 (he also won girls golf state championships in 2010 and 2012).
"I think after awhile they started realizing what Matt would want them to do," added Skogerboe. "It's a great group of girls. He would want them to continue on and achieve the goals they set for the season."