By Anne Marie Amacher
DAVENPORT — Achieving his 500th career win as St. Ambrose University’s basketball coach is an accomplishment, but Ray Shovlain would rather brag about others’ achievements.
Yes, he reached the 500-win milestone Jan. 2 against Waldorf College in Forest City, but he’s more excited about one of his players reaching a 1,000-point career mark.
Shovlain will tell you his own accomplishment is the result of being blessed with quality players. And the win didn’t come easy if you consider the challenges. The team’s bus broke down on the way to Forest City and was without heat. “We waited in Charles City for another bus and ate burgers and fries before our game,” he laughed. Then the game went into double overtime.
Senior Alex Burkle reached a milestone of his own that day — a 1,000-point career mark. Shovlain marvels at his success and perseverance. “He’s battled mono two times, shingles and injuries. Alex is a story in himself. He reached such an accomplishment with that record.”
Shovlain was himself a player at St. Ambrose, and reflected on his almost lifelong association with the university during an interview in his office in Lee Lohman Arena on campus. The office is adorned with basketballs and plaques, along with basketball nets and a banner from the 2004 Final Four performance in NAIA Division II.
Shovlain’s family moved from Ottumwa to Clinton when he was a kid, and he graduated from St. Mary High School in 1975. The oldest of six children, he graduated from St. Ambrose, where he played basketball while earning his bachelor’s degree in accounting. After graduation he worked for Bandag in Muscatine while studying for a master’s degree through the University of Iowa.
Then-St. Ambrose basketball coach Leo Kilfoy asked him to become the assistant basketball coach. Shovlain accepted, moved to Davenport, switched his master’s studies to St. Ambrose and began his coaching career. He also took a job overseeing one of the dorms and helped in financial aid and student services while he completed his MBA. By the mid-1980s, he’d become head coach.
Over his career at St. Ambrose he’s taught full- or part-time in the business department. Besides serving as coach and teacher, he’s also the university’s athletic director.
When he became head coach, Shovlain said he figured he would move on to a large university within a couple of years — Notre Dame, University of Iowa or University of Illinois. “I was going to go big time,” he laughed.
But God threw a challenge at him. “We didn’t win very many games the first year. The next three years weren’t very good either. Then one day I woke up and realized this was the best possible job for me — right here at St. Ambrose.
“I could coach and teach and I had a new attitude. I could always network later.” From then on, Shovlain said his team did better. The next 20 years were “exceptional. This is the big time.
“Why have we been so successful? It’s the quality of the people from the student athletes to the assistant coaches.”
Shovlain challenges his players and all athletes at the university to be better people. He does that through a community service requirement. “It allows for personal growth. It challenges them.”
He hopes community service will encourage the athletes to continue being of service. “Maybe they will become scout leaders. Maybe they will coach at the Y. Maybe they will volunteer at a soup kitchen.”
He laughs and says that volunteering helps cleanse the soul.
Community service is something he decided on gradually, and it became a reality when he decided he needed to take the lead. So he and the student athletes cooked 300 meals for dinner at the Salvation Army.
He said they enjoyed it, and then arrived to serve the food. “That was an eye-opener for me. I was uncomfortable. I was down there with people who were hungry — families and children.”
That was the start of service activities for all athletes. Today, Shovlain, who is a member of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport, has athletes volunteering in a variety of service projects including Habitat for Humanity and the food basket program at St. Anthony Parish in Davenport.
People have criticized him for having team members get up early to load and deliver food baskets only to turn around and play a game that afternoon or evening. “What’s more important, helping others or the game? It’s helping people out.” Sure it’s nice to win games, he said, “but it’s valuable to gain experience and to give assistance.”
“Coach Ray always stresses the importance of being aware of the world we live in, and he challenges his students and athletes to take an active role in the community,” said Dustin Renwick, a senior at St. Ambrose. A captain of the track and field team and a student in Shovlain’s management and finance courses, he said the coach “constantly emphasizes that it is crucial to keep a positive outlook on a situation. But more importantly, he lives out his philosophy and strives to be the first example of it.”