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Data: Fired East Ridge volleyball coach ‘berated’ players

An East Ridge High School assistant volleyball coach was fired after she was recorded berating student-athletes in a closed-door meeting.

Heather Zebrowski was fired by the South Washington County School Board in September after a district investigation found she had spoke to players in a “hard, angry, loud, intimidating and retaliatory manner,” according to a termination letter.

The letter, obtained by the Bulletin through a public data request, says multiple parents went to an East Ridge volleyball practice Aug. 29 to file complaints. After Zebrowski heard of the parents’ complaints, she directed multiple athletes to a “storage area.” Another adult was present and made a 10-minute recording of the conversation.

Zebrowski is heard on the recording questioning the students about why they shared concerns with their parents and blaming them for the complaints.

“You then suggested to the students that they should not share information with their parents,” the district wrote in the termination letter.

Zebrowski was interviewed by district Human Resources Director Denise Griffith on Sept. 23 as part of the investigation. The termination letter indicated that Zebrowski initially said she met with the players because she wanted to understand the problem and help them. Zebrowski later agreed that the recording did not reflect a supportive attempt to help the students, and she said she was embarrassed to hear herself.

“During your investigative interview you also stated that if you had known that you were being recorded, you would not have said the things you said,” the district’s letter read. “Your statement misses the point. The recording is not the issue. The issue is your conduct.”

The letter was signed by East Ridge Principal Jim Smokrovich and Activities Director Joel Olson.

Mick Waldspurger, an attorney for the district, said the recording could not be released because it contains private educational data that cannot be separated from public data in the recording.

The school board voted to authorize discipline for Zebrowski Sept. 29, though the board did not specify during the meeting that Zebrowski was being fired.

Zebrowski, a former college volleyball player who was an assistant volleyball coach at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, was first hired for the East Ridge assistant coach position last year. She returned this season.

Zebrowski could not be reached for comment.

Zebrowski’s firing bothered some parents. Mike Spolidoro, a father of an East Ridge volleyball player, spoke at a school board meeting last month before data about Zebrowski’s firing was made public. He said he was representing a number of volleyball parents. Spolidoro said there are challenges with the program but terminating Zebrowski may not be the answer.

“I love the sport of volleyball,” Spolidoro said. “What pains me is to watch kids crying on the bench, to watch kids flat on the court because of the pain they are going through with everything that’s happened.”

Poppelman hired

After Zebrowski was fired, the district hired Eric Poppelman as an assistant coach on Oct. 7, which was formally approved by the school board Nov. 3. 

Poppelman helped coach the East Ridge junior varsity team through the remaining games on the schedule. His employment with the district is set to end on Nov. 15. The East Ridge volleyball team’s season ended last week.

East Ridge activities director Joel Olson said a decision has not been made on whether Poppelman will be back as a coach next season. The discussion will take place in the offseason.

High school coaches make hiring decisions for assistants on their staffs with help from activities directors.

Olson said varsity head coach Maddy Amon filled in as the junior varsity coach until Poppelman was hired.