A busy fall: Cox teacher and coach (and coach) wins with nonstop schedule

Jason Zuidema watches the boys team scrimmage during practice. (Joe Saade/Southside Daily)
Jason Zuidema watches the boys team scrimmage during practice. (Joe Saade/Southside Daily)

Jason Zuidema began his economics class at Cox High School with some unpopular news:

“Quiz today,” he said. “Put your phones away.”

The students sighed. They asked for a postponement. “Mr. Z” declined.

Minutes later, after seeing her score, student Alexis Davies-Hackenberg asked if she could get extra credit if she named Zuidema’s two children.

Mr. Z chuckled.

“Name my favorite child and you’ll get the extra credit,” he said.

The comeback drew laughs from the class. Later, the teacher gave Davies-Hackenberg a quick pep talk. He didn’t say much, but the student got the message.

“He said, ‘Alright, you’re fine,’ ” Davies-Hackenberg recalled. ” ‘Move on, you’ll get better.’ ”

Zuidema’s teaching style — encouraging, relatable, laid-back — doesn’t stop at the last bell. After class, Mr. Z holds court in the fall for hours more after school. He’s the head coach of both Cox varsity volleyball teams — the boys and the girls — and his approach with his players is producing success.

The boys won the Group 6A state championship last fall and are primed for another long postseason run, while the girls ended the week holding onto the fourth and final playoff spot in their conference.

Zuidema’s dual coaching roles — he has led the boys team for 10 years and the girls team since 2012 — follow a full day of teaching and make for one hectic schedule from September to November. Here’s a look at a day in his life:

(For more photos, view this collection by reporter Joe Saade.)

5:30 a.m. Thursday

The alarm rings. Zuidema wolfs down breakfast and a cup of coffee, then fills an 18-ounce mug that he’ll carry throughout the day. He’s out the door by 6:30 a.m.

As the school day begins, Zuidema has his first block “off,” so he spends it on classwork.

Second and third blocks are back-to-back classes of teaching World History. Zuidema usually takes his lunch break in the classroom at the middle of third block, but this day he had promised a couple of students that he’d visit their project presentations in another class.

Mr. Z skips lunch.

12:40 p.m.

Zuidema’s fourth-block economics class begins. He keeps his students engaged and lets them listen to music as they

Jason "Mr. Z" Zuidema teaching economy class. (Joe Saade/Southside Daily).
Jason “Mr. Z” Zuidema teaching an economics class. (Joe Saade/Southside Daily).

finish homework, but Zuidema, who has taught at Cox since 2007, stresses the ‘work’ part. There is joking but no slacking. The students know their teacher is watching.

2:10 p.m.

The bell rings again. For Zuidema, it might as well be a starting gun. He has 20 minutes to switch into coaching mode.

“I don’t have time to grade classwork,” he says.

Instead he runs to his car to grab gym clothes. His first practice is about to start.

2:30 p.m. — Boys practice begins

Thursday is normally a game day, but this is a conference bye week. His players already have the net set up. They stretch, warm up and then meet Zuidema on the side for a quick talk. The team struggled with serve-receive in their 3-1 non-conference loss the day before to Maury, so Zuidema begins by focusing on that area.

This team was supposed to be going through a rebuilding year.  The Falcons are the defending state champions but they lost five of their starters from that team. Brett Rosenmeier (Hawaii), Russell Dervay (Stanford) and Will Calaman (George Mason) moved on to collegiate ball.

Seniors Brad Creamer and Jake Gibbs are the only returning starters.

Creamer knew about the team’s potential, though. Zuidema made sure everyone else knew it, too.

“(Jason) came to us at the beginning of the season and said, ‘Most people are going to think this year will be a rebuilding year, but that’s not how we’re going to approach it,’ ” Creamer recalled. “We have every anticipation of winning a state championship again.”

Cox (15-3) enters the final week of the regular season jockeying with Ocean Lakes and Bayside for the No. 1 seed in the Coastal Conference. In his 10 years with the program, Zuidema has guided the boys to a 225-37 record,  seven state final appearances and three state titles.

The Falcons are accustomed to success at the highest level, and this year is no different.

The players don’t know where their team would be without Zuidema’s vision on the sideline. He’s the ultimate player’s coach.

“Jason’s not the yelling guy,” Creamer said. “He’s cool in the biggest moments. You can look in his eyes and know exactly what he needs you to do and know exactly what he’s feeling. When he says something, you have to listen, because it’s valuable.”

Creamer, a former starting goalkeeper for Cox’s soccer team, picked up volleyball just two seasons ago, after two soccer-related concussions forced him to hang up his cleats. Now he’s a hitter who can play any position. Zuidema helped turn him into one of the nation’s top college recruits.

“I owe everything to him” said Creamer, who is deciding between the University of Southern California and University of California, Irvine. “I wish everybody could play for a coach like Jason.”

Gibbs, the senior outside hitter who has played for Zuidema for four years, says the coach knows how to make players better.

“Those mistakes you can’t fix,” Gibbs said, “he picks those out and fixes them.”

4:15 p.m.

Coach Zuidema in huddle during girls practice (Joe Saade/Southside Daily).
Coach Zuidema in huddle during girls practice (Joe Saade/Southside Daily).

The girls team strolls into the gym and watches the boys scrimmage at the end of their practice.

While the boys finish up with a blocking drill, the girls warm up on the other court with assistant coach Rachel Smith. Zuidema takes a bite out of an apple. It’s his first meal since breakfast.

The coach prepares for another wave of players.

“You have to be cognitive of the emotions and where their heads are at,” Zuidema said. “Some kid one day could be a totally different kid the next. You have to be sensitive to all of them on any given day, boys and girls.”

Like the boys, the girls practice starts with Zuidema’s huddle. The Falcons (9-10) enter their last week of conference play trailing Kellam, Ocean Lakes and First Colonial.

“He treats us just like the guys sometimes,” senior middle hitter Bella Marko said. “He holds us to a certain standard. You can just tell by what he says and what he doesn’t say. Sometime’s he’ll just glance at you, and you’ll know.”

In class, Davies-Hackenberg might bicker with Zuidema about using a pencil instead of a pen during a quiz. In practice, the sophomore hitter pays full attention to her coach.

“He’s the same person in class,” Davies-Hackenberg said. “He coaches us in class. Get your work done, do this, do that. … It’s a plus to have him as a teacher and coach.”

Zuidema has combined the two programs into one family. Practicing and playing back-to-back every day builds chemistry. Off the court, both teams participate in fundraising events, including the JT Walk for ALS and Ping Pong for Charity.

“We are now a team,” Creamer said. “It’s not that you’re coming to watch girls or watch boys. Jason’s made it that you’re coming to watch volleyball. It’s grown respect in our sport.”

Around 7 p.m.

The girls practice ends and Zuidema finally exits the high school’s doors.

After teaching and coaching about 200 kids (150 students, 50 players) in 12 hours, he heads home to his wife, three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.

On game nights, he gets home even later.

“It’s hectic for sure,” he said.

Zuidema feasts on a long-awaited dinner. The family recently moved into a new house, so if there’s any daylight left when he gets home, he might do some yard work. There’s also class work and preparations for the day ahead.

“Fortunately my three-year-old doesn’t like to go to sleep,” Zuidema joked. “So I spend extra time with her.”

After putting the kids to bed, it’s about time for Mr. Z to do the same.

“It’s tiring to say the least,” he said. “But being with kids and coaching, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.”

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