WILMINGTON — Susan Heiss arrived at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington in 1981, just a few years out of the University of Delaware, ready to teach physical education, and coach volleyball and track and field. She found a home at the all-girls school, but this year, after four decades of service, she will step into a new role: retirement.
Heiss will retire both as a coach and as athletic director, a role she has held for approximately 30 years. She gave up the track and field coaching job years ago, but she has been a mainstay on the Delaware high school volleyball scene before the mothers of today’s players were in high school. Heiss will retire with more than 540 victories and 11 state championships, the most among any coach in the state.
She was honored at a ceremony before the Raiders’ final regular-season home match on Oct. 30 against longtime rival Saint Mark’s. Former players returned to the school to honor their former coach. Photos of her state championship teams hung on the walls. Heiss took it all in, then got down to the business of the evening.
Earlier that week, Heiss reflected on her years at Ursuline and how she ended up spending 40 years there.
She came to Delaware from Baltimore to play volleyball for the Blue Hens and legendary coach Barbara Viera, who led the program for 26 years. She learned a lot from Viera.
“I went to Delaware and I played volleyball, but I sat the bench for Barb Viera,” she said. “And I sat next to Barb Viera during the games. So, I learned how to coach from her, and what to watch for. When I got the opportunity to coach myself, of course it’s a totally different perspective than playing.”
She coached a year at Delaware Technical and Community College and a year at St. Elizabeth High School before taking the job at Ursuline. She was asked to coach track and field along with volleyball, and she didn’t know anything about the sport. But there was a huge unintended benefit.
“That’s where I met Ralph, over at Baynard Stadium,” she said.
Ralph Heiss and Susan got married in 1986 and had four sons. He was a guidance counselor and coach at Salesianum School, where he worked for 44 years before retiring last spring. The couple now has two grandchildren. Their sons are spread out around the country, so they plan on doing some traveling.
“It’s going to be hard for me because I tend to be a workaholic. I’ll probably do some volunteer stuff. I like kids, so I’ll probably be involved with young people. We want to travel,” she said.
When Heiss began at Ursuline, she had no idea, of course, that she would still be there so many years later. She had come from a public school background, so she could only imagine what it would be like in a private, single-gender school.
“The girls were terrific,” she said. “The girls were competitive, very sports-minded, really good students, funny. I just loved the kids, and the teachers were terrific, too. It was the perfect combination for me being a young person coming out of college.”
An example for others
She took over the athletic director’s job from one of the people responsible for hiring her, the late Laura Capodanno, and at the time, she was one of the few female athletic directors in the state. One other was Joan Samonisky at Sanford School. Heiss and Samonisky knew each other at the University of Delaware and have remained close over the years.
“Sue has been a tremendous role model for those fortunate enough to be taught or coached by her,” Samonisky said. “She has been a leader of Ursuline athletics for many years and has done so with grace, class, and unwavering spirit for Ursuline Academy.”
Samonisky said the two communicate frequently and use each other as a sounding board. They often lean on each other for advice.
Much has changed at Ursuline during Heiss’ tenure. The school added nearby Serviam Field earlier this century, giving most outdoor sports a home. Before that, they would have to rent fields or use public parks. Laffey-McHugh Gymnasium used to have a rubber surface, but a donor made the current wood floor possible. Another donor provided for the retractable bleachers.
She has brought in coaches who have been very successful, and along with the wins, something else about those men and women stands out.
“I guess what I’m proud of, too, is the coaches who come, they stay. I don’t get a lot of turnover of coaches. It’s because of the girls. They stay because they like the way they work,” she said.
She has hired assistant coaches for volleyball that fit the program well. Many are her former players.
“What I can’t provide, they provide. I’m old school. They’re a newer version. I can be quirky when I coach. I’m very animated. We complement each other very well, and I’ve been very fortunate about that,” she said.
One of her former assistants is Mary Pat Kwoka, whose first taste of being a head coach came in 1990 when Heiss took the season off after the birth of one of her sons. (She took a season off after her first two sons were born.) Kwoka led the Raiders to the state championship that season and has since had great success at St. Elizabeth, Archmere and Delaware Military Academy. She won another state championship with the Auks in 2014 and also led St. Elizabeth to two championship-match appearances and Archmere to four others.
Kwoka said she was grateful for Heiss “taking a chance and hiring me as her assistant coach at Ursuline in 1990. Coach Heiss is known best for her superstitions and her strategizing, but she has a very caring and compassionate nature that she brings to her student-athletes.”
Heiss has the admiration and respect of her opponents, Kwoka added, and she will be missed in the high school volleyball community.
Heiss thought about retiring last year when her husband did, but having to deal with the coronavirus pandemic took some of the joy out of the season for her. She was so busy filling out paperwork and monitoring health plans that she couldn’t spend the time coaching that she would have liked.
She is appreciative of having fans back in the gyms this season.
“The atmosphere at this school is very conducive to it, too. It’s a big enough gym to hold a nice crowd, but small enough that everybody knows each other, and they come out in force,” she said.
“It’s just wonderful. I have a nice team this year. The parents have been wonderful. The administration is so supportive. The team has given me everything I wanted this year.”
Winning a state championship is great, but Heiss said watching her players succeed is also very rewarding.
“A teacher or a coach sees something in them when they’re in high school, whether it’s leadership or knowing how to work as a team, being that funny person on the court to keep a team going, and then they’re able to translate that into an adult life,” she said.
Coaches and teachers, Heiss said, help plant the seeds of success for their students.
“It’s very satisfying. In their words, they relate back, ‘Ursuline gave me this, so I have the confidence to try this. Yes, it was hard to be the only woman to do this, but I did it.’ It’s very rewarding,” she said.
Katie Orga Godfrey played two seasons of varsity volleyball for the Raiders in 1998 and ’99. She had a long career in teaching at Salesianum School before becoming the athletic director at the all-boys school this past summer. She said Heiss has been a role model.
“Coach Heiss was a strong female presence in my life during my formative high school years and is now a colleague and mentor in my new role as athletic director at Salesianum,” Godfrey said. “She is a legend at Ursuline and has committed countless hours to the growth and success of not just the volleyball program, but the entire athletics program.”
Some of the most memorable times for Heiss at Ursuline occurred between 2004-08, when Elena Delle Donne was playing basketball (and one year of volleyball) for the Raiders. The team was nationally ranked, and they had a spirited rivalry with St. Elizabeth, which had its own star in Khadijah Rushdan. The teams played each other twice a year during the regular season, and bedlam surrounded those games. They also faced off for the state championship every year between 2005-08. The Raiders won three of those.
Fans lined up around the block trying to get a ticket, and it was not unusual for high-profile college coaches to be in attendance, including Geno Auriemma of Connecticut and the late Pat Summitt of Tennessee. At one point, all five starters for Ursuline ended up playing Division I college basketball.
“It was fun. The attention that boys sports get, it was like 100 times more with this girls sport, and it was well-deserved. People were coming from across the community and across state lines. They had no connection to either when it was St. Elizabeth and Ursuline, Khadijah and Elena, but they wanted to see good basketball,” she said.
Heiss is excited about the opportunity to spend more time with her family. She credits her husband and sons with being so supportive of her when she was busy running the volleyball team or athletic department. She said having a spouse who was also a coach was helpful because he understood the commitment.
“He’s been so supportive, and he also understands the AD part of it. He knows how long it takes to set up everything. He’s been great. My children have been great,” she said.
The two joke about who the better coach is. Ralph coached cross country and track and field for 42 years at Salesianum. His teams won 16 cross country and nine spring track and field titles.
He also understood her superstitions. When Ralph Heiss walked on to the court at his wife’s final regular-season home match, the public-address announcer said he was not usually allowed to attend. Sue Heiss also recalled that when Ralph was coaching Salesianum cross country and the state championships were held on a Saturday morning, she couldn’t know the results until after the volleyball championship match that same evening.
“That was my tradition, superstition,” she said.
The 2021 Raiders entered the 2021 state volleyball tournament as the 14th seed in the 24-team field, hosting Appoquinimink on Nov. 3 at 6:30 p.m. Should they win, the remainder of their tournament matches will be away from Laffey-McHugh Gymnasium.
“A lot of those last-time moments are starting to hit me,” Heiss said.