Don Lash's legacy extends far from the volleyball court

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Photo - Coronado plays against Green Mountain in game two Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011, at Coronado High School. The Cougars won 25-19, 25-19 and 25-23.     (photo by Kevin Kreck)
Coronado plays against Green Mountain in game two Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011, at Coronado High School. The Cougars won 25-19, 25-19 and 25-23. (photo by Kevin Kreck)

As the volleyball coach at Lewis-Palmer since 2002, Susan Odenbaugh takes great pride in the program's consistent run of success, highlighted most recently by appearances in the 4A state championship game the past four seasons and two titles.

She's careful not to take too much of the credit.

Many years earlier, before she arrived at Lewis-Palmer, Don Lash took the reins of a floundering program. The year was 1985. By 1993, Odenbaugh had joined the staff as Lash's assistant, and the Rangers won the first of four state crowns.

They've been a force to be reckoned with ever since.

"He's the foundation of success for this program," Odenbaugh said about Lash, who recently announced his retirement after a 37-year coaching career that produced 566 wins and two state championships. "He knew how to coach the right way, and that's something that stuck at that program. There's a big part of him in me. All the time, when I make a decision, I'd ask myself 'What would Lash do in that situation?'"

As it turns out, Odenbaugh wasn't the only colleague with the Lash imprint.

"I don't know of a more wholesome coach, as far as someone who at the same time as teaching the sport also taught valuable character traits, such as hard work, integrity and doing the right thing," said Bridget O'Connor, who played for Lash from 1986-88, coached against him while at Manitou Springs from 1996-2012 and serves as assistant principal at Lewis-Palmer.

"I took a lot of what I learned as a player into how I coached. It was really more than a game, talking to the girls about the lessons that can be learned through athletics. The most important pieces were perseverance and having class when you win, and more when you lose. That's what I learned from Don Lash."

Lash taught a variety of subjects during a 27-year career in the classroom, ranging from math - he earned a master's degree from Northern Colorado - along with social studies, science and computers.

By 2003, he had left the classroom and court, or so he thought, but soon after found himself on the sidelines again. It seemed light years since his debut in Aguilar in 1976.

"I thought I was done," said Lash, a native of Cortland, N.Y., who had earlier completed his undergraduate studies at Syracuse before earning his first master's degree from Cortland State. "I had no expectation of continuing. Friends would call, and if there was something I could do to help, I would do it."

Lash returned to Elizabeth, where he spent eight seasons before taking over at Lewis-Palmer, and made that commute for four seasons (2004-06, 2008). He even returned to assist Odenbaugh for the 2007 season and also gave his time at Pikes Peak Christian (2009) and Harrison's junior varsity program in 2010.

Then, during a match against Coronado, Lash became intrigued at the potential of a once-proud program that claimed state titles in 1983, 1988 and 1992.

"I pursued that one," Lash said. "I realized there was talent and real potential there. I thought it would be good to try my hand at a high level again. They hired me."

In his first season, Coronado reached the 4A state championship game, where it fell to Cheyenne Mountain, which went undefeated and was in the midst of a five-year stranglehold on the crown. Two seasons later, the Cougars again reached state, but this time found themselves matched up with Odenbaugh's Rangers - who were on their way to back-to-back titles - in pool play.

Perhaps the 2015 squad was his most unlikely of success stories. Seven of his 11 varsity players were sophomores and the 5A Metro League sent both Rampart and Pine Creek to the state tournament the previous year.

Coronado ended the regular season in a three-way tie - with Rampart and Pine Creek - for the league crown, then as a No. 23 seed at a regional hosted by No. 2 Mountain Vista, shocked the hosts in a five-setter that sent the Cougars back to the state tournament.

Then, once they got there as the lowest seed - No. 12 - all Coronado did was push top-ranked Chatfield to a fifth set before falling short, upsetting No. 8 Fairview, then nearly reaching the semifinals in a one-set tiebreaker, again falling just short.

"Because you have those long-lasting relationships, you want to see him be successful," Odenbaugh said. "He did such an amazing job with that team. He always got his teams to play to their full potential, and this team was no different. You'd walk through the (Denver) Coliseum, and everyone was talking about Coronado. He had everybody cheering for him. I'm glad he had that kind of success."

He looked forward to future success on the west side. His body had other ideas, however.

"I've had a lot of back pain, and eventually, it would probably impact how I coach or how effective I am," Lash said. "I thought about it (stepping away) for a long time. This is a hard group to give up. There's so much talent and so many possibilities. I'd rather leave it where someone can walk in and have a program to go with. But these are really good kids. It's hard to leave that."

Lash won't be bored, and probably won't spend too much of his retirement in a rocking chair. In addition to watching his two grandsons, he and his wife, Joyce, sponsor four children in Ecuador through Compassion International. Over the years, they've made seven trips and their next voyage there is set for this summer.

"I'm going to enjoy spending time with my family," Lash said. "I volunteer with Compassion, and I've really enjoyed that. It's an incredible ministry. For me, I think it's time for a change, and it's a good time for someone new to step in."