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A package deal for Rifle High

Jeff Caspersen
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Heather and Ryan Sulkowski wanted a change. Insane workloads left the husband-and-wife collegiate coaching duo with a void to fill in the quality-of-life department.

Ryan was a member of head football coach Dabo Swinney’s staff at Clemson University and Heather was the head volleyball coach at Converse College.

Needless to say, travel and the rigors of recruiting left little time for a family life.



“During the fall, and probably into February of March, I’d say [we’d work] anywhere from 70 hours a week for me to almost 80 for him,” Heather said. “We both coached in different directions. We were always on the road and recruiting. We never saw each other.”

So the couple began exploring other employment options. The search eventually led them to Rifle High School.



“I was actually just searching online,” Ryan relayed. “I came across [the school’s football opening]. We were sitting there, trying to figure out where we’d like to move and what kind of change we’d want. Well, Colorado is a destination we’d like to look at, so I applied for it.”

Turns out, the school also had a volleyball opening.

Everything progressed swimmingly from there and, just like that, the Sulkowskis were preparing to ditch their South Carolina digs in favor of Colorado’s Western Slope, where Ryan will grab the reins of the Bears’ football program and Heather of the school’s volleyball program.

“The cards fell into place,” Ryan said. “A lot of it came down to us evaluating what we wanted to do on a personal level. When Heather and I looked at it, the hours that are involved in college football are extreme. We’re coming to the point where there was just no time off and our quality of life was suffering because of that. … It really just came down to, again, a better quality of life for our family.”

And, with both Ryan and Heather entering their early 30s and entertaining the prospect of one day having children, family life is growing increasingly important to the Sulkowskis.

Fittingly enough, the Sulkowskis can thank their chosen trade for bringing them together.

“I was coaching football at a school and she was coaching volleyball at another school in the same conference,” Ryan recounted. “We actually had a game at a neutral site and they had a volleyball match at the same site. I guess I didn’t have my mind on football that day.”

Sharing a profession sparked an instant connection, one that eventually led to wedding bells.

“We both understand each other’s frustrations,” Heather said. “That’s how we found our connection from the beginning.”

Ryan and Heather also share a similar past.

Both were collegiate athletes – Ryan was an offensive lineman on Valdosta State University’s football team and Heather played volleyball and basketball at both Barton College and Peace College.

Neither Sulkowski is walking into a winning program.

In 2008, the football Bears finished 3-7 and missed the postseason for the first time in 13 seasons. Their first-year coach, Bill Kucera, never as much as graced the sideline during a game after injuring his neck while demonstrating a blocking technique while running a preseason practice.

The volleyball Bears, on the other hand, improved on recent history, winning a pair of league matches – their first Western Slope League wins in some five years. Still, Rifle’s 2-12 mark in circuit play and 7-12 overall record kept the squad in the cellar.

Both husband and wife seem to embrace the challenges at hand.

Ryan hopes to unearth the winning culture that drove Rifle football to a downright dynastic run over the past decade-plus. From 1998 to 2007, Rifle won a state title, four league titles and compiled an 86-35 record.

“The Rifle tradition speaks for itself,” Ryan said. “At the same time, what I told a lot of the guys on my interview – especially some of the kids I met – is that we can embrace the tradition and embrace the past, but at the same time, we have to move forward.

“There’s nobody in the school building, besides a few coaches and teachers, who actually have a state championship ring. I think the kids took to that.”

Heather, who’s amassed seven years of collegiate coaching experience at three schools, doesn’t quite have the same storied past to draw from with her volleyball project, but she is well-initiated with rebuilding processes.

“When I took over at Peace, the program was not in good shape,” she said. “We guided them to fourth place in the conference, in which they were the only single-gendered school. We were at a disadvantage, first of all, so to take fourth was a big deal for us.”

Heather had begun steering Converse in the right direction in her first season as its head coach last fall.

In sizing up her current squad, the veteran coach believes she has pieces with which to build. That said, the march toward respectability may take a little time.

“Obviously, winning is important,” Heather said. “We don’t want to win a championship the first year. It’s about setting small goals each month.”

If their track record is any indicator of future success, the Sulkowskis should have their new programs rolling in the right direction soon enough.

jcaspersen@postindependent.com


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