Sister Elaine Freund created a place where it was ‘cool to be smart’

Contributing Writer

“Some make their mark on the soccer field. Some make history on the basketball court. I was never that sort,” says Jill Haberl Steffens, 1995 graduate of Gibault Catholic High School in Waterloo.

“Sister Elaine Freund gave me, and many like me, another place to compete.”

Steffens was a member of the Gibault Scholastic Bowl team, coached by Sister Elaine Freund, ASC, from 1992-1995.

“I still remember the feel of that buzzer in my hand and the sense of belonging that it gave me,” Steffens adds.

“Sister Elaine created a place where it was cool to be smart, where we learned about Shakespeare, art and history because we wanted to know more and be more. She encouraged and praised, and I bloomed.”

These words appear in one of several nomination letters about Sister Elaine submitted by the school to the Illinois High School Scholastic Bowl Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

The nomination was successful. Sister Elaine, a Waterloo native, is one of three Scholastic Bowl coaches entering the Hall of Fame for 2021. A celebration is scheduled for 2022.

Scholastic Bowl is an academic team competition of varsity, junior varsity and freshmen teams that quizzes students in math, science, literature and social sciences. The idea is to play as many schools in the state as possible in the academic year.

Tournaments are set up similar to the Jeopardy! television show, where team members “buzz in” to answer questions. There is a lock-out system that allows only the first person to click the buzzer to answer. Teams earn points for correct answers.

Sister Elaine was pleased that through funds from the school’s Fall Festival, a new buzzer system was purchased for the team.

For the 2020-21 school year, several tournaments were held virtually for the first time. Students would buzz in using an app on their phones.

Tournaments and practices occur after school and on weekends. Gibault plays teams from schools in Breese, Carlyle, Columbia, Dupo, Marissa, New Athens, Trenton and Waterloo.

Before tournaments, faculty members at Gibault play as a team against the varsity Scholastic Bowl students to help them prepare.

Last year, Gibault had 35 wins and four losses when the coronavirus pandemic cut the season short, and sectional and state tournaments were canceled.

In the 34 years Sister Elaine was a Scholastic Bowl coach, the Gibault teams went to five state tournaments, placing three times in the state’s top four teams.

Over the years, Sister Elaine taught English, honors English and freshman religion from 1975 to 1978 and from 1984 to 2013.

In 1987, Sister Elaine, a vowed member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ for 56 years, re-started the Scholastic Bowl program that had grown dormant at Gibault.

She continues to coach the teams even after retiring from teaching in 2013. Since then, Pat Hurst, the Spanish teacher at Gibault, has served as coach and Sister Elaine as assistant coach.

She said the recognition has her feeling “over the moon.”

Asked why she’s stayed with Scholastic Bowl for more than three decades, she said, “I always say ‘yes’ year by year because I see a good group of freshmen coming in that I want to see them succeed into their senior year.”

Sister Elaine says she would remind her players this is a team activity. “I would tell them to appreciate and encourage their fellow teammates.”

She also encourages each student to hone in on their specialty area and to learn the strengths of each team member.

“I am so happy to see students be proud about what they learn,” Sister Elaine says. “I could be dead tired at the end of a day. But after an hour with these students, I am energized.”

Writing on behalf of Sister Elaine’s 2019 and 2020 Scholastic Bowl teams, Spencer Biske, Gibault class of 2020, says, “Sister Elaine has been my coach, my mentor, my friend and my family.”

“While I could go on and on about her many accomplishments and her incredible knowledge, that alone is not what makes an excellent coach,” Biske says. “Sister Elaine was not the type of coach who only cared about the results of the team; she cared immensely about the people in it.”

Biske explains the enjoyment all of Sister Elaine’s players got from the game created a certain passion inside each and every one of them.

“Sister Elaine was the one who lit the fire under us and gave us a platform on which to rise,” Biske says.

Biske’s mother, Andrea Kish Biske, Gibault class of 1991, was a charter member of the school’s Scholastic Bowl team in 1987. She currently is the director of development for the school.

Sister Elaine shares that several of the team’s members over the 34 years she has coached have since had children who also now are members of Scholastic Bowl teams at Gibault and at other schools. One young man became an English teacher and began a team at his school.

“As I sent my son off to his own Scholastic Bowl state tournaments three years running,” Steffens says, “I always felt the need to share Sister Elaine’s classic advice: ‘When in doubt, guess Keats.’”

She adds, “Her dedication to Scholastic Bowl and commitment to making it happen decade after decade should earn her a spot in the coaches’ Hall of Fame.”

And it did.