Another big loss for New Prague

I received a text message from my oldest son Sunday evening.

“Mr. Shetka died?” You heard anything?”

At that point, I hadn’t, but I was about to find out. I called New Prague High School Activities Director Brad Skogerboe, who confirmed that Matt Shetka, longtime teacher and coach in the New Prague Area Schools, had died Sunday of an apparent heart attack while shoveling snow.

It was then that I checked my messages on my cell phone. I had three calls within a half hour from when the news first broke on Facebook.

I’ve known Matt for 23 years, since I moved back to town to work for the newspaper.

I’ve worked with a lot of coaches over the past 23 years, and only Matt and Ron Gunderson, the girls basketball coach, are… were still at it from that first year.

Matt was one of my favorites to work with, because he always took the time to really let me know what was going on with the team. He didn’t sugar coat things, he could be brutally honest. If his team didn’t do well, he’d say so. And being the competitor he was, he was seldom satisfied, even if the team scored well.

After last week’s meet at Lakeville North, he wrote down some notes for me and put them in my box at the middle school. It felt a little strange going to pick them up Monday. Even stranger when I sat down to write the story using his quotes.

Expectations were high for this year... they remain so, and Matt was very impressed with how things went in that first meet. He talked about how proud he was for the girls and all their hard work... Then he talked about what they needed to improve on.

That was typical of Matt. He found the positive in everything his girls did in the gym or on the golf course, and then went on to work with them to improve their performance for the next time.

Once in a while I would stop at Lau’s Bakery on a Saturday morning and Matt would be sitting - always in the same spot - looking at the newspaper. We’d have a good conversation about something… usually sports, sometimes another topic. He was a very easy person to talk to, and seldom had anything bad to say about anyone.

I always enjoyed trying to get a photo of him spotting for a gymnast during a meet. It was always a challenge, because he moved quickly, and I hadn’t gotten a good one in several years. I had noticed one thing, though, about two years ago - When the girls were on the balance beam, he would sit on a chair or mat near the beam, so he could do his spotting, but he would always be facing toward the stands and away from the gymnast. I was reminded of this when I looked at some photos Monday. I had always wanted to ask him about it, but never thought to do so. On Tuesday I asked Doug Amundsen, his assistant coach, who explained it was a superstition Matt had, and that he could still see what was going on using his peripheral vision and could also tell by sound how the girls were doing and when when they wobbled.

I’m going to miss working with Matt. I’ve been in his shoes as a coach, having to deal with pesky newspaper reporters, but Matt was always very accommodating.

More importantly, he was a friend, and I’ll miss that most of all.