WINSTED >> If 32 years is a life in volleyball, then retired Gilbert coach Cindy Fixer has lived it.
Add four more years as a Yellowjacket player where she first learned to love the game for a total of 36.
“I went out for the team as a freshman; I had no clue what volleyball was,” said Fixer.
Fixer was a setter and captain of the Gilbert team under legendary coach Mary Ellen Vaccari, then became a legendary coach herself – first as a four-year assistant coach under Vaccari, then 28 more as head coach.
Vaccari and Fixer led their team to a state runner-up finish in Fixer’s first year as assistant coach.
Three years later, they went all the way to a state championship.
With a growing family, that was enough for Vaccari.
Fixer took over as head coach in 1987, going on to a state championship and state runner-up finish plus 13 Berkshire League championships and eight BL Tournament Championships while establishing a 326-242 record over the next 28 years.
Like her first days as a player, there was plenty of learning to do as a new coach.
“I didn’t know what to expect; it was exciting,” says Fixer. “Lisa (Mangione) Brochu was a star on the team (All-State in volleyball, basketball and softball). My brother Steve was in Lisa’s class, so it was more like a sibling relationship.”
Nevertheless, there was no better teacher than Vaccari.
“The two of us had a very good working relationship. Here’s what she wanted done. That’s what I did. I took the JV team and was on the bench for varsity matches.
“The year before our (1986) championship, we took the team to the University of Rhode Island Junior Championships. That’s the kind of thing we did.
“I didn’t know about coaching, but I certainly learned under Mary Ellen. We complemented each other.”
As most assistant coaches find, it’s a different world as head coach of a thriving program.
“There was more stress, more sleepless nights – trying to keep the tradition going. Two years in, my sister Allison is on the team; now I’m coaching her.
“I decided early that my definition of success was ‘if the girls improved.’ But people like to win, too.”
For several years, Gilbert and Terryville played epic matches at the top of the Berkshire League.
“I respect Linda Farrington and what she’s been able to do with that Terryville program,” said Fixer.
Nevertheless, people like to win.
In 2000, the Yellowjackets played the first half of their season at Northwestern’s auxiliary gym while Gilbert’s gym was being renovated.
Gilbert’s only loss was to Terryville in a regular-season split. Then the two teams marched through opposite sides of the CIAC Class S bracket to the state championship for the tie-breaker.
“Being on that state championship bench, everyone holding hands, waiting for that final point. That was a highlight of my career,” says Fixer. “The other one was having the girls over to my house for a pre-season picnic every year since I was an assistant coach. You get to see them in a different light.”
Gilbert beat Terryville for the state championship. Next year, the Yellowjackets were state runners-up to Morgan.
They rolled through 2003. Then volleyball, like other Yellowjacket sports programs, felt the decline in Gilbert’s student population.
“It was fine through 2003. 2004 was disappointing. I had to step back a little bit.
“I was stressed and frustrated through 2006. Then I said, ‘Okay, this is what I have. We’re still going to try and work really hard, but if it’s not there, I’m not going to get sick over it.
“My goal for the last five years (through some two and three-win seasons) is ‘Let’s try for a .500 season.'”
Love of the game carried her through.
“I didn’t have a problem until three years ago. I just had 15 girls vs. the 20 or 21 I was used to.
“Enrollments are going down in every town,” she says, but family issues, including an aging mother and nieces she wants to see play volleyball, finally tipped the scale for Fixer.
The sister she coached in her second year of a glorious career at Gilbert now has a daughter – Macie Wheeler – who’s a freshman on Northwestern’s volleyball team.
Great coaches get to see that kind of cycle.