TAMPA — His comfort zone consists of a court, net, kids and a hamper of volleyballs. It’s where Coach Tim finds contentment, fulfillment and periodic exhilaration.
“I do it because I love being around the kids,” he says. “They keep me going.”
Entrenched in his element on this Monday evening at Sickles High, Coach Tim is bedecked in his trademark red Skechers, dark-rimmed glasses, black shorts and black Bloomingdale High volleyball T-shirt. A junior varsity match between the Bulls and Gryphons, followed by a varsity contest, are looming. Another blissful night at the office.
Standing at the net, Coach Tim lobs volleyballs in the air as players take turns leaping and spiking them during warmups. Then he coaches the Bulls in their JV match, never sitting down during the two-set defeat. After presiding over another round of warmups, he assists Bloomingdale varsity coach Damian Goderich during the Bulls’ five-set triumph.
“You mention the name Coach Tim, and people are like, ‘Yeahhh, Coach Tim,’ ” says Christina Voehl, whose two daughters played for Coach Tim, including the youngest, Emma, a senior on the Bulls varsity. “They love him.”
Tim Rovnanik, 64, has remained a steady, paternal presence at Bloomingdale — in the classroom and on the court — for more than a decade now.
A full-time substitute at Bloomingdale, he is wrapping up his 11th year as a volleyball assistant. Goderich is the fourth head coach with whom he has worked. During that stretch, Coach Tim has juggled the smorgasbord of jobs indigenous to his profession: coach and counselor, statistician and sounding board, fundraiser and facilitator.
“(The players) can go to him if they’re struggling with school or struggling with friends or whatever, so he’s just always there for the kids,” said Chip Martin, a Durant High teacher whose two daughters also have played for Coach Tim.
“He’s a constant presence. He’s there for everything. For the car washes, for the fundraisers — for everything.”
Until he wasn’t.
Last spring, the heart of Bloomingdale volleyball essentially stopped beating. Nearly 30 years after his first heart attack (at age 36), Rovnanik, a married dad of two and grandfather of three, suffered another one that left him clinging for life.
“At first I thought it was a rumor. Like, I didn’t believe it,” Bulls senior setter Camila De Jesus said. “It was a real shocker.”
Reason to live
Raised outside Pittsburgh, Rovnanik didn’t play volleyball growing up. A University of Tampa alumnus, he fell in love with the sport by chance around 40 years ago, while working at St. John Greek Orthodox Day School in South Tampa, where he was employed for three decades.
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His roommate at the time was dating Carol Chalu, who ultimately constructed a prep volleyball dynasty (12 state titles in 21 seasons) at Tampa Prep.
“And of course her being the coach at Tampa Prep, we used to help her out,” Rovnanik said. “We’d actually go and work with her a little bit with the team. We’d go to the games and stuff and even call lines for them so they wouldn’t have to use players.”
With Chalu’s encouragement, Rovnanik eventually launched a middle school program at St. John (which no longer exists) that competed against other local private schools. In time, he began working with local club teams before landing at Bloomingdale.
“(Chalu) was a good person to learn from, there’s no doubt about it,” Rovnanik said.
Ultimately, he established a dawn-to-dark presence at Bloomingdale, essentially working every day as a long-term substitute for teachers requiring extended time off (due to illness, maternity leave, etc.), and helping coach volleyball after school. He evolved into a popular figure at Bloomingdale.
Rovnanik and wife Lezlie adopted two of their grandchildren, 10-year-old Bristol and 7-year-old Timmy. Bristol became a constant companion of her granddad, accompanying him regularly to practices and games.
“He’s not just a substitute. To (the kids) he’s one of the teachers here at Bloomingdale, and same to us,” said Sara Bogue, Bloomingdale’s athletic director the last four years.
“He just really genuinely cares about the kids and takes an interest in them, not just in volleyball but in the classroom as well. And I think kids can see that. They can see when someone really cares.”
But in early spring, Coach Tim suddenly stopped showing up. In the wee hours of April 3, he woke up in his Bloomingdale West home feeling “weird.” In hindsight, he said waking up was probably the luckiest thing that happened to him that night.
“I had a heart attack when I was younger,” he said. “And you know how they tell you that you get that dread feeling? That something’s not right? I had that feeling. It was like, ‘This isn’t right, it’s not good.’ ”
He was rushed to HCA Florida Brandon Hospital, where the facility’s cardiac-services team was summoned in the middle of the night for emergency catheterization. In those initial hours, an email chain already had surfaced within the Bloomingdale community.
“I get up around 5:30 (a.m.), and when I got up that email was there that, ‘Hey, Coach Tim went into the hospital with a heart attack and we don’t know anything yet,’ ” recalled registered nurse Brandy Provencher, director of cardiovascular services at the hospital whose daughter had played for Coach Tim the prior season.
“So that started and I went to work, didn’t think anything of it, just like, ‘All right, hopefully he ended up where he needed to be, he’s going to be OK.’
“And then we do rounds on patients and I always knew him as Coach Tim, not Timothy Rovnanik. So I go into his room and I see him and I’m like, ‘Coach Tim? Oh my gosh!’ So from there, we kind of watched. And I knew his case, talked to the surgeon about his case and how difficult it was, or was going to be.”
Heart surgeon Dr. Bradley Bufkin performed four heart bypasses and wanted to do a fifth but couldn’t because there was so much damage. Coach Tim’s prognosis appeared bleak.
He eventually remained hospitalized eight days and lost 30 pounds. Meantime, his surrogate family at Bloomingdale went to work.
GoFundMe accounts were established. Student organizations ordered and sold T-shirts featuring Coach Tim’s likeness with “Coach Tim Strong” emblazoned below it. A charity volleyball match between Bloomingdale teachers and students was arranged.
“It was very serious, and the outpouring and just everything in response to his being sick, really that tells the story right there,” Voehl said. “It’s just amazing. People said, ‘He’s sick,’ and it was, ‘What can we do?’ That was it.”
Through the sale of the shirts, the GoFundMe accounts and charity match, Bloomingdale raised roughly $25,000 for Coach Tim’s medical expenses, according to Bogue.
No one could place a price tag on what followed: When the student-teacher match was staged in early May at Bloomingdale, Coach Tim showed up. Appearing frail and wearing an external defibrillator attached to his hip, he briefly addressed the crowd.
“You’re getting me all emotional,” said Bogue, her voice cracking. “We were just so glad to have him back because he’s just like a really important part to Bloomingdale.”
Soraya Hall, a senior on the Bulls varsity, said no one expected Coach Tim’s cameo.
“Seeing him skinny was really hard for me, because that wasn’t the Coach Tim that I knew for three years,” Hall said. “And then seeing his little pack that he wears, that was hard, too. But he was still smiling, so that was nice to see.”
‘I’m going to do it’
Many presumed Coach Tim’s appearance at the charity event would be his last at Bloomingdale for the foreseeable future.
Family advised him against even contemplating a return to volleyball. His exercise was limited to walking laps around the inside of his house. The defibrillator — a rectangular device roughly the size of a waist pack — became an extra appendage.
“Because of his heart function, he’s at great risk of sudden cardiac death,” Provencher explained. “So his heart could go into a lethal rhythm, and that device will detect it and shock him out of it, and hopefully buy him time to get to a hospital.”
Undeterred, Coach Tim committed himself to a comeback. As his weight increased, he built his walking regimen up to 25-minute sessions, four times a day.
“My family was saying, ‘You can’t do this, you shouldn’t be doing this.’ And I said, ‘I’m doing it,’ ” Rovnanik said.
“This is what I want to do, this is what I like to do, this is what gives me the strength to come back. And I told myself every day, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it.’
“I pushed myself just so I could get back to these kids.”
Three months after the surgery, when Bloomingdale showed up for the annual summer volleyball camp at the University of Tampa, Coach Tim accompanied the Bulls. He has remained with them since, and even has returned to the classroom, though his substitute schedule has been modified.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, so seeing it and just being so worried, it was pretty amazing that he got back,” Provencher said. “But I know he likes to be a role model and he knew that he had to come back to show them that he can come back, that you can come back.”
The top-seeded Bulls (13-6) face Hillsborough in the Class 6A, District 10 opener at home Tuesday evening. In the hours leading up to the match, Coach Tim will pop his half-dozen or so medications, perhaps do some laps around his house, then take his normal spot at Goderich’s side for the start of postseason play.
This is, after all, his comfort zone, his element.
And where his surgically mended heart is.
“And you know what, he told me he’d rather do this than sub full-time,” Martin said. “And he said, ‘I had to give up something,’ so he gave up his everyday subbing job to be here with these kids.
“That says a lot about him.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.