Sandy Freres has spent thirty-five years putting Prairie athletics on the map. More importantly, she's helped decades of students travel their own roads of self-discovery.

By Brendan O'Brien | Achievements, Student Life

Here’s the thing about passions: the truest ones, the ones that live in our bones and flow through our blood, those passions never die. They don’t dwindle. Things like what Sandy Freres feels for the students at The Prairie School live forever, growing deeper and more complex as time goes on.

It is a clear day in early March and Freres is not happy with how basketball officials are being treated. On the national level, at WIAA tournaments, even here in the Johnson Athletic Center, Prairie’s gleaming gem of a high school complex which houses her office in the building’s southwest corner.

“Young people don’t want to do it,” she says. “Why take that abuse? You’ve got veteran officials working just to keep someone there.”

She is unnerved by the unruly behavior in stands all over the state, worried about a recent statistic that shows the rate of new officials down fifty percent across the country.

“People screaming at officials,” she says. “You never used to see that. And when people are asked to stop, they get indignant.”

What can be done? Who will come forward?

These are questions Freres has asked herself throughout a career in education that has spanned over four decades.

“Jay Hammes [former Athletic Director at Racine Horlick] started a program called Safe Sport Zone because of the violence going on in sports. It’s now funded by American Family Insurance and endorsed by the NIAAA and the NFHS. He teaches it nationally. He and I are doing a workshop at the state convention in November where we’ll be addressing this.”

After thirty-five years coaching, teaching, advising, and overseeing Prairie’s sports programs, Freres is retiring. She is respected both locally and at the state level, and has been recognized nationally for her contributions to interscholastic athletics. Despite a career filled with accolades, she expresses disinterest in accolades. Just getting her to agree to this interview took equal parts patience and convincing, and while she could kick back for the next few months and bask in the letters, voicemails and texts that have been pouring in since she made her announcement – correspondence, she says, that moves her to tears each day – that’s not her style.

There is work to be done.

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His name was Brian Domin and he was the reason Freres wanted to play professional baseball. A high school ballplayer with a good arm and a paper route, the boy who lived across the street from a kindergarten-aged Freres routinely took time for a game of catch.

“In 1951 there were no sports for women,” she says. “I grew up playing whatever I could get on the playground – jump rope, four square, hop scotch. However, I would follow Brian around on my tricycle and he would play catch with me every night after he delivered his papers. He took the time to hang out with a dorky little kid who followed him everywhere, and he didn’t treat me like a dorky little kid.”

Her Major League aspirations lasted until middle school, when she set her sights on following in the footsteps of a different trailblazer.

“In sixth or seventh grade my gym teacher, Rose Mary Kirsbaum, said, ‘You’re going to grow up and be in physical education,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m going to grow up and be like Clara Barton [founder of the American Red Cross].’ I was just fascinated with her as a kid. Loved reading about her. She was so ahead of her time in terms of determination.”

There was only one problem – the blood.

After high school, Freres attended the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to study nursing. As a young undergrad she was the first to volunteer when Oshkosh received cadavers for the very first time.

“I volunteered to cut,” says Freres. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Shortly after she started having nightmares about being covered in blood – a problem, obviously, for someone hoping to make a living in hospitals.

“We called home once a week – Sunday nights – from a pay phone,” she says. “I called to tell my mom I was changing my major. I was going to be a teacher. My mother was this little German immigrant and she said, ‘But Sandra, I thought you were going to be a nurse.’ And I told her I’d always loved kids. That that was the direction I was headed.”

And it’s true. As a young girl, when her sister would accept neighborhood babysitting jobs, it was Freres who played with the kids and devised different games and contests. “My sister would babysit and she’d have me organize the activities.”

While studying Education and playing sports at Oshkosh – she was a standout softball and field hockey player for the Titans – Freres first began to understand what the evolution of her role in academia, particularly physical education and athletics, might look like. This was the late sixties and early seventies, and even though the movement in women’s collegiate athletics had begun – efforts that ultimately resulted in the Title XI Act of 1972 declaring women could not be excluded from participating in sports based on gender – Freres and her teammates still faced extreme adversity on campus.

“People referred to us as the jockettes,” she says. “They made fun of us. When we started asking for letters and awards like the other athletes we were told – even by the women – we did things for intrinsic reasons, not extrinsic.

 

So even though we were college athletes, playing other college teams, we weren’t funded. We paid for our uniforms, travel, everything.”

It was easy to get discouraged. Frustration was inevitable. However, thanks in large part to the care and wisdom bestowed by Janet Moldenhauer, a beloved swimming coach hugely instrumental in creating a number of women’s programs at Oshkosh, Freres found the guidance she needed.

“It wasn’t even so much about the athletics,” Freres says. “It was about taking risks. She taught me you could challenge yourself and be successful. ‘You will swim across Lake Winnebago. You will rappel off the cliffs with the ARMY ROTC.’ She was relentless. She told me ‘You will never be the kind of leader women need in this state if you don’t take risks.’ I don’t know why she said that to me.”

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Rare are the difficulties more challenging than changing a mind that’s made up.

It was the summer of 1985 and Freres, having been named Acting Athletic Director following the sudden resignation of longtime Prairie AD Al Bill, had barely emptied her boxes when an angry trustee stormed into her cramped Fieldhouse office to voice his displeasure over the decision.

“He glared at me. He said, ‘Just so you know, we don’t agree with this and I’m going to keep an eye on you.’ This was the early eighties. He wasn’t sure how things would be managed. He knew there weren’t a lot of women doing the job. Even today in the entire country only 10% of athletic directors are women.”

The way an individual faces adversity says so much about their character. And if you know anything about Sandy Freres, you know there was only one possible response.

“I thought it was great,” she says. “I told him, ‘I appreciate that and I hope you give me a chance.”

However, to understand how Freres made it from a barnstorming undergrad to the Prairie AD office in just over a decade, there’s an important group we must first discuss: nuns.

After graduating from Oshkosh in 1973 with degrees in Physical Education and Biology – her nursing credits came in handy after all – Freres’s first teaching job was at St. Joseph Academy, an all-girls’ school in Green Bay. What she found there was an eclectic and amiable group of women eager to be trendsetters in the world of education.

“These women were way ahead of their time,” says Freres. “The already had flex schedules. They had Resource Centers. If you were struggling with history, you’d go to the history resource center and they’d help you. They saw girls interested in nursing so they started anatomy and physiology.”

They also saw what was happening in sports.

“The nuns wanted to start girls’ athletics. Start them,” Freres says. “None of them had played, but they stayed glued to what was happening in education and they wanted to produce successful, bright young women no matter what they were going into.”

And so, after an interview during which a group of nuns quizzed Freres on her qualifications – can you teach biology, can you teach physical education, can you coach volleyball, can you coach basketball – she was hired.

“It was 1973. I was 21 years old and starting an athletic program for 800 girls with a budget of $100. Those nuns were risk-takers. They helped me. Supported me. And we became a force. We added more girls’ sports – tennis, track, softball, golf. We started that whole thing.”

What Freres also learned as a 21-year-old AD was that she’d have to quickly find her voice while fighting for a spot in a sports world hierarchy – in this instance the Fox Valley Christian Athletic Conference – dominated by tenured men and longtime priests.

“I worked with all men because the conference was ran by all men,” she says. “I had to wait to speak in the meetings. But I befriended the coaches and athletic directors. I asked for help. I wanted them to mentor me, to develop me as a teacher and coach. And eventually things changed. It went from ‘Why is she here?’ to ‘Okay, Sandy, we’re going to be doing this and we need your help.’ It was like these two roads merged and we were all going down the same highway with the same goals.”

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Prairie was where the field hockey was.

Following her stint in Green Bay, Freres spent three years at University School in Milwaukee where she did a bit of everything – coached girls’ basketball and track, monitored weightlifting sessions, taped ankles. She also coached field hockey, and competed regularly against Kathy Shortell’s Prairie Hawks.

“I had met my husband and we were living in Racine and I was commuting to Milwaukee. I told Shorty that if she ever decided to leave Prairie to let me know. Their field hockey program was great. And I loved the sport. Loved coaching it. Playing it. Everything. She went back to grad school in the spring of 1981 and I was the first call she made. I came down and interviewed with Tony Fruhauf [Head of School] and Al Bill and they offered me the job.”

In true Freres fashion, she spent the summer on campus immersing herself in the position, attempting to figure out the confusing Prairie circles that have confounded many a new employee. “I’d get lost and couldn’t get out. Mike Davenport or Dick Boudreau would find me sitting in the hallway and I’d ask them to get me to an exit door.”

Eventually Freres did more than just find her way – she made her own.

Over the next several years, Bill was the instructor of a thorough administrative crash course, teaching Prairie’s new Physical Education Teacher and Field Hockey Coach how to run an Athletic Department. A man relentless in his preparation, he made detailed lists – numbered one through thirty – and made sure Sandy knew every single step.

“There were a lot more S’s than A’s on those lists,” says Freres. “He told me I needed to know these things. He made me go to his AD meetings. And I could never really figure out why. Then [in June of 1985] he resigned. The Headmaster Mr. [James] Van Hoven went way out on a limb and asked me to be the Acting AD. He took heat for that.”

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Twelve state championships. Wisconsin Athletic Directors Association District AD of the Year (2008). National Federation of State High School Association’s Citation Award (2014). National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association State Citation Award (2016). The Lighthouse Trophy – awarded to the top high school athletic program in Racine County (2016).

Legacies are impossible to capture in a snapshot, but these are a handful of honors bestowed on a woman who is respected her profession over. And while the trophies and plaques have been many, for Freres, they pale in comparison to seeing a young person find success.

“There’s no greater joy than seeing [a student] take a risk and then watching that look spread across their face when they understand the change. That’s what you live for.”

For over three decades, Freres has lived for Prairie. From teaching to coaching to advising to mentoring to brainstorming events like Primary School Fan Night, she has dedicated her life to highlighting the innumerable attributes of this community, to making sure Prairie is synonymous with success and respect.

“I talk to young women about taking risks, but I talk to young men the same way,” she says. “Everyone has something to overcome. How do you motivate them to be better students? To train hard? How do you motivate them to discover their goals, their dreams, their passions? And how do you keep them focused on being good human beings? Whether male or female, those things transcend themselves. We’re all on the same highway traveling together.”

And just how did things conclude with that trustee?

“At the end of that spring, he came walking back in and said, ‘You did good and I’m here to help.’ I think that’s the true measure of a respectable person. I love that story because it’s so honest. He told me if I needed anything to let him know. Isn’t that cool?”

It is – but not nearly as cool as a woman spending her life helping generations of kids in a place about which she will be forever passionate.

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