Nokomis Grad A Legend At Wabash Valley

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Boredom, or some equivalent to it, got Paul Schnarre into coaching, just seven short years after graduating from Nokomis High School in 1966. Success is what kept him in it for nearly five decades.

In his 36 years as the head softball coach at Wabash Valley College in Mt. Carmel, Schnarre accumulated 1,404 wins, the most in the history of National Junior College Athletic Association softball going into the 2020 season, to just 325 losses. To put that in perspective, Schnarre could have continued coaching for 21 more seasons and would have still finished with a record over .500, even if he never won another game.

“I never thought it would turn out this way. It’s just one of those things that happened,” Schnarre said of his success. “I seldom look back in the past. I look at what I have to do today and plan for the future.”

Schnarre’s path to the NJCAA Hall of Fame started on the diamond at Wabash Valley, just not the softball one.

Schnarre went to Taylorville High School for his first three years, before moving to Nokomis when his parents purchased his grandparents’ farm south of Nokomis. Between farming and school work, Schnarre also found time to play baseball for the Redskins in 1966.

“I was an average athlete, but I wasn’t an all-American or all-stater. I just played because I loved the game and was a good student of the game,” Schnarre said. “I think that helped me in sports. I like competition. I like that you know if you’re successful or not successful on a day to day basis.”

From Nokomis, Schnarre continued his education at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, getting his bachelors degree in 1970. While working on his masters degree, he took a job at Wabash Valley College as an agricultural technologies instructor.

“I didn’t think I was going to stay here that long, but here I am,” said Schnarre, who still lives in the southeastern Illinois town of about 7,000 with his wife, Karen. “The people are really great down here.  They’re really friendly.”

In the beginning at Wabash Valley, Schnarre only taught, but after his first year, he found himself with a little more time on his hands.

“When I’d get done teaching at 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, I’d just meander around. I walked across the parking lot by the gym and there was baseball and basketball going on. I’d just go over and watch their practice,” Schnarre remembered. “Pretty soon I was in the batting cage hitting with the team. The coach at that point in time wasn’t very... dedicated. I think they were 0-11 the previous year. So in 1973, I became the baseball coach. I played baseball once in my lifetime, so I qualified I guess.”

The program would turn around pretty quickly, with Schnarre going 85-47 in four years, guiding Wabash Valley to its first Southern Illinois Collegiate Conference Championship in his final year in 1976, after taking over athletic director duties in the fall.

In 1974-75, Schnarre was also an assistant coach for the basketball team, which at the time had decidedly less success.

“We were something like 3-22,” Schnarre remembered. “One of the wins was when the head coach called in sick before a two and a half hour road trip, so I had one of the three wins. I think he just didn’t want to make the trip.”

While he turned down the head coaching job, Schnarre played a part in hiring the next man to lead Warriors, Jay Harrington, who went 67-38 in three years at Wabash Valley before moving on to a hall of fame coaching career at Southwestern Illinois College.

The success didn’t stop with Harrington. Since the 1975-1976 season, Wabash Valley has racked up more than 1,000 wins and a NJCAA national championship under Jay Spoonhour in 2001. Schnarre hired Spoonhour after John Loyer left for a job with the Portland Trail Blazers.

“That was one of the more interesting things as an athletic director, having a good team, having a coach quit, keeping that team together, which is a lot harder at the junior college level, reassuring them we’d find them a good coach, hiring Spoonhour, then winning the national championship. That was kind of hard to picture in October when all of this was going on,” Schnarre said. “That year we were 36-1. The following year Spoonhour left and we hired a guy named Mark Nelson and finished in the final four again.”

“Once our program took off, we got to where we were a stepping stone for people,” he continued. “We started getting some really good candidates and still have a really good program.”

The basketball program isn’t the only one to thrive under Schnarre’s tenure as AD, which lasted until 2013, when the current head basketball coach Mike Carpenter took over. The baseball team has racked up 24 straight winning seasons under Coach Rob Fournier, who Schnarre hired in 1996, and was ranked number one in the country before the pandemic struck.

“I enjoyed the success of the other teams,” Schnarre said. “Our volleyball team has been to the national tournament. So have our men’s and women’s basketball teams. One of the things I’m most proud of  is that every one of the sports programs I was involved with was competitive, nationally recognized and has played in national tournaments.”

Schnarre’s best coaching hire may have been himself, which again came more out of necessity than some grand master plan.

“In November 1979, all I was doing was AD’ing and my softball coach came to me and said that she was pregnant and wouldn’t be able to travel in April, which would be right in the middle of their season,” Schnarre said. “So, I took over and was pretty well the softball coach ever since, besides four years in the early ‘90s.”

Under Schnarre, the Lady Warriors became a conference and national power, peeling off a string of winning seasons that continues on today under Head Coach Asa Deffendall, a long-time Schnarre assistant. In Schnarre’s 36 years at the helm, Wabash Valley won 23 Great Rivers Athletic Conference Championships, 11 NJCAA Region XXIV Championships and has made ten NJCAA Division I National Tournament appearances.

His 1,404 wins weren’t just the most in NJCAA softball history, they were the fifth most at any level at the time of his retirement. While Heinz Mueller of DII Phoenix College passed Schnarre’s mark by going 25-0 to start the 2020 season, upping his record to 1,420-473, Schnarre still holds the DI NJCAA record.

“When I first started coaching softball, you’d take the members of the volleyball team and the members of the basketball team who wanted to play softball. You’d throw them out there and that was your softball team. That was what I inherited,” Schnarre said. “After a year of going along with that I thought, ‘You know, maybe if we found a pretty good pitcher, that would make us a lot better.’ Then it was, ‘Maybe if you had a pitcher and a shortstop...” Next thing you know, you’re going out and recruiting a whole team.”

Schnarre would build his program by connecting with high school coaches in the area, both in Illinois and Indiana, just over the Wabash River from Mt. Carmel.

“I knew a lot of the head softball coaches at the high schools around us, especially in Indiana. I could drive across the river and go to Princeton or Booneville or any of the Evansville schools and I didn’t have any competition,” Schnarre explained. “I was one of the first ones in there. I knew all of the high school coaches and the kids apparently liked playing for me. They said good things about it and more kids started coming. The high school coaches were pretty loyal to me and I was getting the first pick for years and years and years. It’s a lot more competitive now than it used to be, but that’s how we got the program started and started ringing up 40 win season after 40 win season.”

Twenty-three 40 win seasons to be exact, including three seasons of 50 or more wins. And Schnarre seemed to be getting better with age as two of those 50 win seasons came in his final three years.

But all good things must come to an end and Schnarre knew he was leaving the program in good hands with Deffendall when he decided to call it quits in December 2019.

“It takes an awful lot of energy, especially in junior college. You have to travel, recruit and see players in the summer,” Schnarre said. “I was blessed with two good assistants who did a lot of that advanced recruiting for me. They would go and watch the high school and travel team games and would say yay or nay. If they were really good, I’d go watch them play. They saved me a lot of time.”

Schnarre said that the game has changed a lot since he began coaching softball in 1980, with social media, scouting services and travel teams making recruiting more and more competitive.

“Years ago, I’d be the first one who actually called and by making that effort, I’d end up getting the player,” Schnarre said. “With the players anymore, I’m not a social media guy, but you better be a social media guy. It was time for me to go.”

Schnarre still serves as an assistant coach for the Lady Warriors, but giving up the head job gave him some flexibility with his schedule.

“They went to Mississippi and played games at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. and the wind chill was like 27. I didn’t go on that trip,” Schnarre said with a laugh. “I’m 71 years old and I saw the weather was going to be bad and I said, ‘You can do this on your own.’”

Schnarre also intended to spend more time with his family during his retirement as he and wife Karen have two sons, Matt and Nick, and three grandchildren, Lucas, Madison and Alex. But as has been the case for many things, the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans for a while.

“I kind of retired to spend time with my grandkids and play more bad golf, but they had the golf course closed for six weeks and I finally saw my grandkids on May 17 for the first time in two months,” Schnarre said. “It’s not really what I had in mind when I hung it up in December.”

Schnarre didn’t have becoming such an integral part of Wabash Valley College athletics in mind either, but that worked out pretty well for both parties. In February of this year, it was announced that Schnarre would be the first inductee in the newly-planned WVC Hall of Fame.

“His guidance and vision as the athletic director is the main reason why all of our sports have competed on a national level for so many years, and his excellence as a softball coach will never be duplicated,” Athletic Director Mike Carpenter said when announcing Schnarre’s induction.

Schnarre, whose name is on the WVC softball field,  was quick to give credit to others when asked about his success, mentioning Carpenter, WVC President Matt Fowler and his predecessor, Dr. Harry Benson.

“As an athletic director or coach, I’d ask for something and he’d say, ‘Let me think about it.’ A couple days later, he’d tell me yes or no, but he’d always give you a straight shot. And if it was no, he’d give you suggestions on what you could do,” Schnarre said of Benson. “You don’t have all this success without administrative support, so I’ve been blessed with him and Dr. Fowler. Mike Carpenter has been really good to me, too.”

And the job was good to him as well. There are days that he will miss the competition and camaraderie of being there every day, but Schnarre knows he dodged a bullet when he missed out on the mess that resulted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was really glad I wasn’t the head coach this spring,” Schnarre said with a laugh, noting he felt sorry that  Deffendall had to tell his players the season was over in March, especially the sophomores. “The good Lord blessed me again when I made the decision that I did. I really feel blessed that 95 percent of the time, when I got up in the morning, I enjoyed going to work.”

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