Marriage links together Utica-Ike rivalry

By: Timothy Pontzer | Shelby - Utica News | Published October 16, 2017

 Utica High coach Jeff LaPratt speaks with his team during a match earlier this season. At press time, LaPratt had guided the Chieftains to an 18-14-3 overall record with a 6-2 mark in the MAC Blue. (Photo by Sarah Purlee)

Utica High coach Jeff LaPratt speaks with his team during a match earlier this season. At press time, LaPratt had guided the Chieftains to an 18-14-3 overall record with a 6-2 mark in the MAC Blue. (Photo by Sarah Purlee)

SHELBY TOWNSHIP/UTICA — Less than 4 miles separate Utica High and Utica Eisenhower.

Fierce local foes, the Chieftains and Eagles clash routinely on the field, diamond, track and ice. That bitterness is also annually evident on the volleyball court, where the respective coaches carry out the rivalry — through sickness and in health.

Married in 2015, Jeff and Caitlin LaPratt find themselves on opposing sides. Caitlin is in the midst of her 11th year at the helm of the Ike program, while Jeff is in his eighth year guiding Utica.

“It is definitely a unique situation,” Caitlin said after an Oct. 12 victory over Macomb Dakota. “It’s great to be married to a coach because we help each other out. I respect him and his coaching, and he has a great thing going on over at Utica.”

The pair met through their shared alma mater. Jeff graduated from Utica in 1989, where he starred on the soccer team. He returned there professionally, teaching social studies and coaching the JV baseball and girls basketball teams.

A 2000 graduate of Utica, Caitlin played volleyball, basketball and track, helping lead the Chieftains to a state championship on the hardwood in 1999.

“I remember the very first time we met, it was at an alumni night for basketball,” Jeff said. “I was the new JV coach at the time. We really got to know each other through volleyball, facing each other and going to the league meetings.”

After becoming friends, Jeff’s first attempt at courtship was shot down rather quickly.

“I asked her out, and she said no and laughed at me,” Jeff recalled. “We had just faced each other in a match, and I said we were going to get some dinner and she was more than welcome to come along. Utica won that night, so maybe that’s why she didn’t want to come.”

Jeff was undeterred, and eventually his persistence paid off.

“After we played again the next year, they beat us, so I asked again, but she laughed it off again,” Jeff remembered. “A year later, we were emailing about volleyball camps, and I responded that instead of emailing back and forth, we should talk it out over dinner. She said that sounded great, but I didn’t hear back from her for about six months. Then, she contacted me and said let’s go out.”

Jeff fondly recalls their first official date — dinner at the Shamrock Irish Pub in downtown Utica. After two years of dating, they officially tied the knot.

“Since we’re in the same district, the rivalry is pretty big, and unfortunately she gets teased a lot by both sides,” Jeff said with a laugh. “They’re all over her, calling her a traitor. I obviously don’t mind.”

The two have faced each other on the court at least once in every year of their relationship in the Utica Community Schools quad. Caitlin’s Eagles took that matchup this year and also won a district playoff meeting four seasons ago.

“When our relationship was new, it was a bit of a sensitive issue because we’re both so competitive and don’t take losing well,” Caitlin explained. “We’ve gotten used to it. … It’s hard because I’m a Utica grad, so I get a lot of heat, but this is my team and program, and I’m proud to be here.”

Jeff said the LaPratt household is a little more quiet in the days leading up to a battle between the couple.

“We don’t really talk about it and just go about our business on our own,” Jeff remarked. “When it starts, I won’t talk or even look at her, I’m there to win. If Utica wins, the house is rough for a while. If she wins, I can deal with it and not get as upset as she does.”

Their home contains separate closets to ensure that the rival colors don’t mix.

“I will never wear an Eisenhower shirt unless I’m forced against my will,” Jeff said. “I definitely don’t own any. She’s a Utica grad, so she can get away with wearing orange.”

Jeff’s players made him a special royal blue shirt that says “Utica” in orange letters, a compromise that allows him to still show support but maintain his standards. Despite that, he said he is his wife’s biggest fan and has learned plenty about the game from her.

“It absolutely helps to be married to a coach,” Jeff said. “We talk about volleyball all the time, bouncing ideas off each other for strategies and what we do in practices. We watch it on television at home and break it down.”

Both make a point to attend each other’s matches when they’re not leading their respective side, something Caitlin called mutually beneficial.

“We always support each other, and it’s always good to have another set of eyes there in the stands,” Caitlin said. “It’s a unique pairing, and it’s fun to have someone you respect and support. After a big loss, he’s a good person to vent to because more than anyone else, he can understand what I’m going through. If I need some lifting up, I can always go to him for encouragement.”