‘Legendary’ teacher and coach dies, Matt Shetka coached five state champion teams, touched thousands in the classroom

Intelligent, demanding, caring… Those are just some of the words people are using to describe Matt Shetka.

The longtime New Prague teacher and coach died Sunday, Dec. 9, of an apparent heart attack while shoveling snow. He was 54 years old.

Shetka, a St. Paul native, arrived in New Prague in the fall of 1980 to teach junior high social studies. He was asked by the athletic director if he had any experience with gymnastics. Shetka, who had been a gymnastics spotter in college, said he knew a little, and he was hired to take over a fledgling program.

Within three years, he had taken the team to the state tournament, and in 1984, the team won the state Class AA championship. In 32 seasons he coached 16 teams and countless individuals to the state tournament, winning three team championships and finishing second seven times. This year’s team is considered one of the favorites to win the State Class A title.

“I still can’t believe it,” said Doug Amundsen, who has been an assistant to Shetka for most of the last 22 years and operates the New Prague Gymnastics Club, a non-profit program Shetka helped to start in the 1980s.

“What made Matt such a good coach was his knowledge,” said Amundsen. “He spent so much time studying the process of the sport - of all sports he was involved with.”

Shetka’s reach in sports stretched far beyond the gymnastics community. He became head girls golf coach 16 years ago and his teams became a state power, winning two Class AAA championships in the last three years. He was a middle school volleyball coach and also helped coach summer baseball and youth wrestling when his sons were younger.

“Matt got fully involved with whatever program he was working with,” Amundsen said. “When he was coaching baseball, he helped get a grant from the Minnesota Twins to help make improvements to the ball field at Foundry Hill Park.

“He spent so much time understanding the mechanics, fundamentals and rules of the sports,” he said. “He became a student of whatever he went into.”

While he touched hundreds of lives as a coach, Shetka also influenced thousands of students as a classroom teacher. Tim Dittberner, principal at New Prague Middle School, said there were so many things about Shetka that made him an excellent teacher.

“He had a great sense of humor,” Dittberner said. “And he was a great story-teller. Anyone who’s had Matt as a teacher knows that’s how he did a lot of his instruction. A lot of former students remember the things that he taught them in his social studies classes.”

“He was very intelligent, very w e l l read, but he came across in a humble way. He was very engaging.”

Dittberner noted that Shetka was a popular teacher, both among colleagues and students.

He added that Shetka was the kind of guy that kids knew cared about them.

“He could tell things to students that they didn’t necessarily want to hear in a way that made them understand that it was what they needed to hear,” he said.

Amundsen said that was one of the things that made him a good coach. “He was able to get the most out of the kids. When he set up routines, he knew the rules and he knew the kids’ strengths, and he went about applying those strengths to the rules.”

He was just as passionate about his family life as he was about the sports he coached. He and his wife Meg raised four sons, Danny, Aaron, Andy and Zach. While his coaching duties kept him busy, he still made time for their activities.

“There were a few times over the years when he would stay home from an away meet... leave me in charge, because he wanted to see his sons’ home wrestling meet,”

Steffi Neisen was a sixyear varsity golfer for Shetka, and a member of the 2010 state championship team. She now golfs for the University of Nebraska. She said Shetka helped put things in perspective for her.

“He reinforced the idea that golf didn’t define me as a person,” she said. “He supported the team at all times. he would be the first to celebrate with us when things went well, but he was also the first to support us when things didn’t go well.

“As great a coach as he was, he was even a better person,” she added. ‘A press release sent out by the school described Shetka as “legendary.” Amundsen agrees with that description.

“Absolutely. He is a member of a select group of coaches in the state who have won multiple state titles in more than one sport. It’s a small group.”

Shetka was named to the State High School Gymnastics Coaches Hall of Fame back in 1999. That was an honor he earned before winning two of his three state titles and qualifying his team for state 14 of the past 15 years.

But for all his accomplishments, Amundsen said Shetka’s legacy is the kids he’s worked with.

“He never wanted the spotlight on him, always wanted it on the kids,” Amundsen said. “That’s one of the principles this club was founded on, helping the kids to be the best they can be.”

Facebook Memorial page New Prague High School graduate Jarrod Schoenecker contacted The Times with the following information.

“I have set-up a memorial page for Matthew Shetka on Facebook for people to share their memories and of the like. This is the link for that. Feel free to publish and share the information for your readers that they may also participate if they want to.

The page can be found at https://www.facebook.com/ MattShetkaMemorialPage