WAYNE — In the history of Nebraska high school softball, there have been just two undefeated teams.
Rob Sweetland of Wayne was a big part of each, coaching Wayne High School to a Class B state title in 2004 and earning a Class C state championship last season.
For his efforts, Sweetland is being honored as the Daily News’ coach of the year.
Sweetland grew up in Exeter and moved to Wayne before his junior year of high school.
“I remember PE being my favorite class in school so ... it kind of led me to majoring in physical education.” Sweetland said. “I was really interested in basketball and had my heart set on being a basketball coach.”
Six years ago, he achieved that goal, but in a roundabout way.
Sweetland graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1995 and in 1997 married his high school sweetheart, Jill, and landed a teaching job in Wayne.
“My first coaching experience in Wayne was with junior high football. I really enjoyed it, but I wasn’t very knowledgeable about it,” Sweetland said. “The next school year I took over the freshman boys basketball team and was more in my element.”
In 2001, Sweetland was approached about another coaching change.
“I had run cross country for coach Rocky Ruhl, who was also the boys basketball coach at the time. He asked me if I’d be interested in coaching softball,” Sweetland recalled. “I’d played baseball growing up, so I had that going for me.”
Helping bend Sweetland’s ear on the matter was Kevin Hill, a professor at Wayne State College.
“I knew him through taking some summer classes. His daughter, Molly, was going to be a sophomore at Wayne High School,” Sweetland said. “Kevin invited me to practice over in Pender, where Molly was playing at the time, and I quickly found out what an amazing pitcher she was.”
“Early on we didn’t hit the ball very well, but with Molly on the mound, we were winning a lot of games 1-0 and 2-0,” Sweetland said.
Hill, who holds the Nebraska high school record for most shutouts (32) and no-hitters (18) in a season, went on to be an All-Big 12 first-team selection as a pitcher for the University of Nebraska in 2009.
“I soon realized our kids needed to get stronger and spend a little extra time hitting,” Sweetland said. “We started to do some winter workouts and made a commitment in the weight room. I think the last 15 years, we seem to have one of the hardest working groups in the weight room.”
The Blue Devils have qualified for state every season but one since starting their softball program.
“We are fortunate in that we’ve traditionally had families with strong ties to softball because they had two or three daughters come through the program,” Sweetland said. “We also have a strong summer program that a lot of parents dedicate a lot of time to, which makes the high school program stronger.”
In 2013, Ruhl again approached Sweetland, this time to tab him as his successor as boys basketball coach.
“For the past five years, I’ve been coaching male and female athletes, and they’re quite different,” Sweetland said. “It works out perfectly for me to be with each one season during the school year.”
For the past few years, his son, Shea, and daughter, Tatum, have been among those males and females.
“Hands down, coaching your own kids is the hardest thing I’ve had to do, but I think I’ve gotten better at it the last few years,” Sweetland said. “As a parent you have high expectations for your kids and are probably a little harder on them. But I’ve learned to separate dad from coach. I try to leave it on the practice field or basketball court, so when we get home, it’s dad time, not coach time.”
But that’s a scenario that’s easier said than done.
“I’m the peacemaker,” said his wife, who manages a First National Bank of Omaha call center in Wayne.
“The funny part is Rob and Shea are just alike. They don’t like to talk a lot. Me, I rather talk about the games, but nobody else usually wants to talk about them, so we don’t.”
But still, she’s enjoying the ride.
“When the kids were little, it was a lot of work. Rob was busy from August so I was the one making sure the kids got to where they needed and the homework got done,” Jill Sweetland said. “Now that our kids are older, he gets to coach them both and I get to sit back. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Shea, a senior-to-be, has participated in football, basketball unified bowling and golf during his Blue Devils career.
Tatyum, a sophomore-to-be, is involved in softball and dance.
“The best part of my day is coaching, and it always goes the fastest,” Sweetland said. “Sometimes school days can drag on, but when I go to the practice field or gymnasium, those two hours fly by. It just shows when you enjoy something so much time flies.”
Sweetland said the list of influential people in his life is a long one.
“A lot of the stuff I got, I stole from other coaches. I’d look around at a given sport and see who’s having success, then try to catch them at a clinic,” Sweetland said. “Coach Ruhl taught me how to act, how to respect the game and how important it is to build character in kids.”
Sweetland also said he’s been blessed with numerous talented assistant coaches over the years.
“Now that I’m a little older, it’s been rewarding to see players I coached early in my career now helping coach the next generation,” Sweetland said. “In fact, one of the players I coached (Caitlin Simon), who was a volunteer coach for me at Wayne High School, recently got hired as the softball coach at Central Community College in Columbus.”
Asked which of the state’s only two undefeated teams was better, Sweet gave a politically correct answer.
“If they played, it would probably end in a 0-0 tie,” Sweetland said.
Sweetland has fielded calls on his interest of moving up to a larger school but has never had the desire to do so.
“Jill and I really wanted our kids to grow up here. Wayne is just a great community,” Sweetland said. “My wife has a good job, and I’ve got a good thing going so it never made any sense to move. Bigger isn’t always better. What we do here is very fulfilling, and we really enjoy it.”