HOLLADAY — Anyone can teach a child the rules of a game. Good coaches teach skills, strategy and training techniques.
But it takes a talent like Gene Bechthold to show that child how the games can enrich the rest of his or her life.
In the no-man's land that can be junior high, Bechthold has made his home.
For 35 years he's been teaching school and coaching sports. The last 30 of those years, he's taught just about everything from volleyball to golf to Twister at Churchill Junior High in Holladay.
That's because while Bechthold coaches boys and girls volleyball and wrestling in Granite School District's junior high league, he also runs the school's after-school intramural program. And if that weren't enough teaching for one person, he's also spent nearly four decades coaching Little League baseball.
Regardless of the playing field, his goal is always the same: To teach his players that being part of a team is one of life's greatest joys, and that sacrifice is a good thing.
Which is one of the reasons he asks his volleyball players to practice at 6 a.m. every morning.
"It's a sacrifice," he said. "They don't typically have too many excuses — other than that they slept in."
And as freshman Connor Haller can attest, coach is very strict about the start time of practices.
If a player is late, the team runs. Sometimes the entire team has to come five minutes earlier the following day.
The result? Players show up on time ready to learn.
"He's really dedicated," said Haller, whose older brother also played for Bechthold.
One of his favorite parts of practice is when coach reads them a quote or saying. Sometimes he asks them to memorize it. Sometimes he quizzes them on what they've discussed.
Haller's favorite quote: "A good teammate does and says things that make his team better."
"Every day he teaches us new life lessons," said Haller, who will go to Skyline next year. "He reads us articles about never giving up."
The players see his strict adherence to team rules as a show of affection.
"He really cares about us," said Haller, who is a captain on the Churchill volleyball team that helped coach Bechthold reach a milestone last week.
On Tuesday, Churchill defeated Bennion 25-18, 25-17 to earn the school its 27th district championship under Bechthold's leadership.
"It was nice because I got everybody in the game," he said.
It was the semifinal match that really challenged the Chargers. They lost two matches this year. One of those was to Olympus Junior High.
Guess which team they met in the semifinals?
"The morning of the game one of our team captains came to practice with a sprained foot," said Bechthold. "Everybody knew they had to step up, and it was a great game."
The thrill of competition is one of the reasons Bechthold, who played baseball in Kearns, loved sports as a boy.
"I just loved to play," he said. "The competition."
He's had boys and girls find success in volleyball and other sports after leaving his programs. Skyline alum Quentin Smith currently plays for BYU's men's team, and Bechthold can rattle off a dozen other boys who've gone on to play college volleyball.
The morning of the championship match, Brayden Pelly was reminding his teammates just how hard they'd worked to make it to the final match.
"He was in the locker room before the championship saying, 'I didn't get up all these mornings to lose this championship'," said Bechthold. "They know they've sacrificed to be there."
In addition to Haller and Pelly, the members of the championship team are Eric Bennion, Kolby Krantz, Brad Curtis, Chris Grayston, Sam Wheeler, Andrew Eyre, Brock Goldstrohm, Michael Binford, John Cronin and Matt Bowen.
And while making one of Bechthold's teams is something to be proud of, he also provides athletic opportunities for any student willing to stay after school.
"Now that is something I really like," he said of the intramural program. "It gives everybody a chance. I do a lot of intramural stuff. Last week we did archery. It gives some of those kids a chance to make friends that maybe wouldn't be on a team."
And even though everyone gets to participate, he also tries to instill in those students the benefits of competition.
He solicits local business to offer prizes for the top finishers in the school's intramural tournaments. The winner, however, doesn't get a bowling pass or free pizza.
"The winner gets a T-shirt," he said, adding that it proclaims them champion. "I always tell them that it's something their mom can't buy for them. They have to win it."9 comments on this story
And while Bechthold has given countless hours to everyone else's children, coaching at Churchill has also allowed him to work with his own boys. Four of them played volleyball for the Chargers.
"I really like coaching volleyball," he said. "I really like the kids. They're great to work with. There is nothing better than working hard, playing a good team and beating them."
And long after the games are over, the memories — and hopefully the lessons — remain.
"It's fun to see those kids down the road," he said. "It's nice to see them at missionary farewells, see all the guys still hanging out together, see all the friendships that you kind of helped get started."