NEW CARLISLE — Jordan Staus had a variety of snacks sitting beside her on the stands in the New Prairie gymnasium.
From to-go sippable apple sauce to celery and peanut butter, she had all the goods.
Cougars senior volleyball player Katie Hancock sat down alongside Staus and without hesitation, took a fresh stick of her coach's celery and dunked it into some peanut butter.
"Oh yeah, go right ahead," the New Prairie coach laughed, rolling her eyes. "Anything else I can get you?"
The two shared a camaraderie that's fairly uncommon between coach and player. It's a theme seen throughout the entire Cougars' roster, too. Staus says her players always gravitate toward and huddle around her for no reason before practices and games. They just want to talk, and Staus has no idea why.
Maybe it's because Staus is younger and can relate to the kids — a lot of her players guess she's 23 when she's actually 30. Maybe it's because she teaches eighth-grade U.S. History across the street at New Prairie Middle School and already has plenty of experience creating relationships with her students.
Whatever the case may be, Staus' bond to her players is uniquely close, almost like she's their older sister. However, both her and the players didn't necessarily see this coming at the start of her tenure in 2018.
Staus is a very disciplined and structured person, planning and scheduling things far in advance. It's how she's always been, dating back to when she was a self-described gym-rat in high school. She played multiple sports and even took up cheer just so she could watch the boys basketball team. A structured regimen helped Staus balance all that with her schoolwork and personal life. Now, she benefits from that by finding ample time to accomplish everything she needs to with coaching year-round and lesson-planning.
So when Staus walked into the gym before her first practice as head coach with balls scattered over the floor and no nets in place, that wasn't going to fly. She quickly asserted herself, sternly telling the girls that putting up the nets and getting the balls ready were two things they had to do every day before practice starts. That's just how things were going to be with her at the helm. Staus hasn't had a problem with it since, and now she doesn't even have to tell the new players what to do. The rest of the team instructs them on how things are run.
Junior Elise Swistek remembers another intimidating moment from that week. A girl trying out for the team wasn't having her best day performing and made a mistake while Staus was hitting balls at her during a drill.
The player muttered a curse word.
It didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary at first. Swistek knows her teammates swear fairly often, and cussing happens in sports. It's a commonality that plenty of athletes partake in, whether it be in celebration or in agony. But not on Staus' teams. If she won't allow explicit music to be played on their bus rides, she sure won't put up with her girls swearing.
Forty 'burpees' (a.k.a. squat thrusts) followed for the entire team — 10 for each letter in the word.
"That scared me so bad," Swistek said. "Like, that was the first week of us knowing her. It was terrifying. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, so many girls on our team cuss.' But that made us learn real quick."
They also learned real quick how much they loved playing for Staus. The intimidation grew into respect, and the girls bonded with her from that point on.
"I'm a lot different than the coaches they've had in the past," Staus said. "I'm really, really disciplined. For kids that haven't had me, they might think I'm mean. That's the word they'll use. But I'd rather use 'tough.' I have really high expectations and I think the kids that want to work hard need those expectations. And yeah, I have some pretty high expectations for my kids, but they respect me. They love coming to class or practice, and I make sure those are fun, but they know they have to be respectful and get their work done."
Most of the most fun memories are made off the court, though, particularly to and from matches. Bus drivers aren't the biggest fans of Staus' team, but not because of the girls doing anything disrespectful. They're constantly yelling, joking around and getting out of their seats to mess around with one another. But what forces Staus to bring her own headphones onto the bus might be the same thing that forces plenty of drivers' eyes to roll to the back of their heads.
"I don't think any of them are in choir," Staus said. "But they think they are."
Earth, Wind & Fire's 1978 hit "September" and Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying" are constantly blared through a portable speaker with the girls belting out the lyrics. The two songs are on opposite ends of the music spectrum, but are the unofficial anthems for the Cougars. They symbolize a bond with each other that drives them to perform at the highest level.
It's these moments that define this team. Staus has built a culture of working hard and pushing one another while having fun doing it. From team sleepovers, to self-deprecating nicknames, to less than pitch-perfect singing, this team is like a family, with its big sister in Staus at the helm.
She reminds them that "you honestly won't remember if you won a game or not, but you're going to remember all these random times that you've had with each other."
And she's right. Sure, a pivotal win against a rival or winning sectionals might stick out when remembering your high school athletic career. But the greatest memories, the ones you'll cherish forever, are the ones in the locker room with your teammates. They're messing around after practice and on long bus rides. They're creating bonds that will last long past a season. And New Prairie has Staus to thank for being at the forefront of that.
"I feel like I can talk to her about anything," Hancock said. "She's a friend, coach and mentor all at the same time."
Class 3A South Bend St. Joseph Sectional
New Prairie vs. South Bend Washington, approx. 6:30 p.m.