Throughout life, Spratlen-Mitchell battled the odds, but faith kept her strong through it all
November 29, 2018 by Noah Lau, Arizona State University
When senior setter Cyerra Taylor first started playing varsity volleyball at South Mountain she was a libero. However, the squad already had a libero and Taylor was not satisfied with her playing time.
That all changed when her coach moved Taylor to a different position.
“I remember my sophomore year and I was not a hitter yet and I was a libero,” Taylor said. “I was put front row and I was like, ‘Coach, are you crazy? I don’t play front row.’ And she said, ‘Not yet you don’t.’ That was my motivation to become a front row hitter.”
Taylor’s motivation started with her coach who has anchored South Mountain volleyball for 25 years and counting.
Her coach is Paula Spratlen-Mitchell.
The Jaguar head coach has seen it all in a career that has produced a state title and regional champs, but knows she is right where she is supposed to be.
“In a very personal sense, I believe teaching and coaching is my calling,” Spratlen-Mitchell said. “I believe this is my God assignment. I’m where I’m supposed to be and doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
One thing has always remained constant in Spratlen-Mitchell’s life: Faith.
Born 1957 in Columbus, Ohio, Spratlen-Mitchell’s childhood was different.
She moved three times before entering fifth grade, with stops in Bellingham, Washington and Berkeley, California.
In Bellingham, her father was the first African American professor at Western Washington State College. And ironically, her family increased the number of African-Americans in Bellingham by 100%.
“I really don’t remember seeing Black people in Bellingham other than my family,” Spratlen-Mitchell said.
She grew up going to all-white schools. But that all changed when her family moved to Los Angeles before sixth grade.
“I had never seen so many black people in my life, and I was uncomfortable and I was seeing people just like me,” Spratlen Mitchell said. “The question I got the most in sixth grade was, ‘Why do you talk so funny?’ I didn’t know what the kids were saying at the time because I sounded like everyone in my house.”
And for high school, Spratlen-Mitchell moved again. This time to Seattle, Washington where she attended Ingraham High School and ran cross-country, swam and ran track.
With constant change in Spratlen-Mitchell’s life, things weren’t always easy. She discovered her faith when she attended church in Berkeley.
“The people seemed just really happy when they were there,” Spratlen-Mitchell said. “The choir would sing, the people would shout and the pastor would preach, so it was very charismatic and almost Pentecostal.”
So Spratlen-Mitchell decided to get baptized when she was 9. Her parents, however, did not agree.
“I distinctly remember my mom say, ‘Not at this time, we’ll wait until she’s older and she knows what she’s doing.’ For some reason that really sunk,” Spratlen-Mitchell said. “I felt like I had done something that was not right.”
It wasn’t until her junior year when Spratlen-Mitchell was formally baptized. Her parents did not go to her baptism and were not into church.
And with all of that experience before her 19th birthday, Spratlen-Mitchell has always she didn’t belong. But one thing has always held her together.
“At times I didn’t feel like I fit in with my family, at times I didn’t feel like I fit in with my peers and that type of thing,” Spratlen-Mitchell said. “There was always comfort in knowing I could find solace in scripture and I could find common ground at church.”
Mitchell went on to graduate from high school and enrolled at ASU where she graduated in 1981 and met her husband James Mitchell. They then moved to South Dakota where they then were introduced to the game of volleyball.
They started coaching at St. Francis Indian School on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation when James took the head coaching position. The team needed an assistant and Spratlen-Mitchell joined her husband on the sideline.
“It just worked, we clicked. We just fell into roles,” Spratlen-Mitchell said. “He was kind of the heavy-handed task master and I would kind of console the girls after they got yelled out by coach Mitch and that type of thing. We just developed a rhythm.”
The team eventually ended up winning a state B volleyball championship in 1986, one of Spratlen-Mitchell’s best moments as a coach. The squad was ridiculed from the start. Fans made fun of their uniforms. After the team won, fans gave a standing ovation.
But family always triumphs. In 1989, Spratlen-Mitchell moved back to Arizona where she wanted to raise her kids, Jeaneen and Thaddeus, near family.
She began teaching and coaching volleyball at South Mountain High School.
Fast forward to 1996 and tragedy struck Spratlen-Mitchell’s life. James was a heavyweight wrestler in high school and struggled to change his eating habits.
He suffered an aneurism that burst at the base of his brain. He was put on life support for a week before a decision was made to discontinue the treatment.
“I think one of the hardest things was talking to my children about it,” Spratlen-Mitchell said. “My daughter she’s such a daddy’s girl I just though I don’t know how I’m going to do this. So I told her dad is here, it just looks like he’s sleeping and my son had asthma, and so I told her, ‘Remember how Thaddeus has the breathing machine, that’s what Dad looks like.’
“I said, ‘Do you want to see him?’ And my daughter said no and my son said yes. So I asked her do you want me to tell him anything and Jeanine said, ‘I don’t want him to die.’”
James Mitchell ended up passing away March 7, 1996 at 6:18 p.m. Spratlen-Mitchell continued teaching but took a hiatus from coaching.
“The time I can be away from school, I need to spend time with my kids, so we can kind of navigate this because that was our first experience with death that close to us,” Spratlen-Mitchell said. “That’s why I didn’t coach for five years.”
To cope with her husband’s death, Spratlen-Mitchell brought her and her two kids to relief programs, including the ASU bereavement program. They attended multiple programs but what ultimately filled the family with peace was her faith and her church community.
Back to coaching
Spratlen-Mitchell returned to coaching 2002. She’s endured winning seasons including her state title in 1986 and losing seasons including going 6-16 in 2018. She’s coached talented players and not as talented players. But to all her players, Spratlen-Mitchell is seen as a role model and to some even a mother.
“My mom isn’t really hands on with me and that’s because she’s has other responsibilities and younger children and so I’ve always done stuff on my own,” senior outside hitter Janae Gwan said. “Her being the coach and her seeing me every day for almost four years she’s definitely been a role model. Taught me some things, how to be a woman, how to grow as a being, life lessons, stuff like that. She’s always instilled stuff into us and she keeps it real with us.”
Death has also occurred in Gwan’s family. She lost her father in her early stages of life. Going to Spratlen-Mitchell has helped her cope with her loss.
“Janae, in particular we have some similarities,” Spratlen-Mitchell said. “Her father died, I’m not sure how old she was, my husband died when my children were young. I know as a coach I’m not supposed to have favorites, but she does have a special place in my heart.”
Gwan added: “I was raised different than her and I’m not connected to my faith and stuff, but even though I’m not she doesn’t let that interfere on what she tells me.”
Spratlen-Mitchell has been through it all.
Her faith will always be the cornerstone at her life. She still has gas left in the tank and continues to coach South Mountain volleyball.
She simply wants to be “remembered as someone who cared, someone who listed, and someone who championed effort, commitment, loyalty and just enjoying being present for people.”