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VCHS coach Jason Clay gets more postseason honors

RICH BAUER, Interim Editor

Vandalia wrestling coach Jason Clay has added a couple of more postseason honors.
But Clay will be quick to point out that while those honors are for coaching, teaching is a big part of his job, as head of both the wrestling and football programs at Vandalia Community High School.
Clay was recently named the National Federation of State High School Associations wrestling coach of the year in Illinois.

VCHS wrestling coach Jason Clay coaches one of his wrestlers during the 2019 IHSA Individual State Wrestling Tournament.

Clay was also named the Illinois nominee for the National Wrestling Coaches Association Scholastic Coach of the year for wrestling.
“The way I look at it is, anything that’s a coaches association thing, I’m more proud of, because you’re nominated by your coaching peers and recognized by them.
“Some of those things, you put in your time and people recognize it,” Clay said.
Those honors have been added to Clay being named the Decatur Herald & Review Area Wrestling Coach of the Year in 2016 and 2018.
Under this leadership, the Vandalia wrestlers captured the school’s 27th consecutive regional title and advanced to the dual team finals for the 22nd time.
The 1998 graduate of VCHS has been at the school since the 2003-04. In addition to coaching wrestling and football, he was a social studies teacher for 17 years.
The past two years, Clay has served as the school’s athletics direct.
He has been the head wrestling coach for the Vandals since the 2006-07, after serving as an assistant under Glenn Exton.
That first year, the Vandalia wrestlers brought home the second-place trophy from the state dual team tournament after losing the championship on tie-breaking criteria.
Clay has been the head football coach since the 2016-17 school year, and the Vandals have been in the playoffs ever since, except for 2020, when COVID wiped out the playoffs.
During his tenure, the football team advanced to the third round twice.
While a student at VCHS, Clay played football for four years, was a wrestler for the last three years of high school and played baseball his freshman and sophomore years.
He wrestled under Exton and played football for Randy Protz, now the VCHS principal.
Clay wrestled at the varsity level his senior year, advancing to and finishing 1-1 at the individual state tournament. That year, the Vandals finished fourth as a team at the dual team finals.
After graduation, Clay went to McKendree University in Lebanon, where he played football all four years.
After student teaching at Breese Mater Dei, Clay moved back home and was a substitute teacher for one semester at VCHS, during which he was an assistant coach under Exton, and filled in at Ramsey during a maternity leave.
“Back then, teaching jobs were hard to come by, it was really competitive.
“If you didn’t know somebody, you didn’t feel like you had a chance,” Clay said.
“I applied for a job in Belleville and there were over 100 applicants,” Clay said.
“They called me and offered me this job here. They day before, I interviewed at Mt. Zion, and they called me the same day (he was offered the job in Vandalia) and said they wanted me to come back for a second interview before they hired me.
“So, I potentially had two jobs in one day after I couldn’t get anything anywhere,” he said.
After being hired to teach geography at VCHS, he began serving as an assistant coach in football under John Stout, starting out as the freshman coach, then advancing to junior varsity and defensive coordinator for Stout.
He and his wife, Jaclyn, are the parents of three children: Brenly, 6; Griffin, 4; and Owen, 1.
Clay is the son of Paul and Jackie Clay, a retired teacher and a retired nurse.
His father gave him some advice about becoming a teacher and coach, after he got some guidance at college.
“He (Paul Clay) did tell me that I did have an opportunity to coach college football right out of college,” Clay said.
“And he told me that I went to school to be a teacher, not to be a football coach, so I needed to go teach,” he said.
At McKendree, Clay was initially steering toward another profession.
“My adviser at McKendree was really good,” he said.
“We were just talking one day, and I was really struggling, because I thought I was going to end up going to pharmacy school, and I just didn’t really see that.
“We talked a little bit, and she asked me about what I was interested in,” Clay said. “I was talking about sports a lot,
“I started taking some education classes and really enjoyed them, and felt like she really helped me figure it out,” he said.
Clay said he was thinking how teaching could tie into coaching.
“My football playing days were about to come to an end, and I was concerned about not having sports in my life,” he said.
“Education was an opportunity to keep sports in my life, to be coaching,” Clay said.
“And once I started teaching, I really enjoyed the teaching aspect of things … and I feel like coaching and teaching are the same thing – you’re just teaching different material,” he said, “and the best coaches are really good teachers.
“They’re able to communicate whatever material it is.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s geography or if it’s football, it’s coaching and teaching,” Clay said.
He brought home that point in a postgame interview in 2018, after his football squad had suffered a tough loss.
In that interview, Clay said the loss would teach his players some life lessons, and that, after all, that’s the job of coaches, to teach.
“I feel like some of the best things I’ve learned have come through being on teams, being part of athletics, things that still affect my life today.
“I’ve learned how to work hard, and part of that comes from your family, but being involved with some of the coaches I’ve had – you’re learning about working, about being a good teammate and about caring about other people.
“So, I feel like I’ve learned a lot of things through athletics, and that’s my goal as athletics director, to see that we’re putting out programs where kids are getting those lessons and learning the same things that I feel like I’ve gained.
“That’s something that we’re constantly evaluating and trying to look at how we could do a better job of getting more kids involved and helping them have a positive experience that impacts them for the future,” Clay said.