Dave Ribbens: Closing on an outstanding career

Athletics director Dave Ribbens is retiring at the end of the school year


Photo provided by Jayna Rumble

Photo provided by Jayna Rumble IN THE HALL OF FAME. Dave Ribbens delivers a speech at the Athletics Hall of Fame ceremony on Oct. 15, 2022. The Hall of Fame was one of many additions Mr. Ribbens made to the athletics program in his time at Lab.

Amon Gray, Sports and Leisure Editor

When Kovler Gymnasium was opened in 2000, it promised room to grow for Lab’s athletics program. Twenty-three years later, this growth is made clear. The wall is nearly completely covered by over 100 IHSA championship plaques. Turning off the main hallway, more than 50 group pictures represent teams across grades. Across the hallway is the office of the man who cultivated that growth: Director of Athletics Dave Ribbens. 

Mr. Ribbens will retire at the end of this year, following a celebrated 20 years at Lab in which he built the athletics program into a robust and competitive collection of teams that reflect Lab’s values.

Mr. Ribbens has focused on three categories of athletics expansion in his time at Lab: increasing the

number of sports offered, expanding the rosters of teams and hiring of new, qualified coaches. 

“Fencing, squash, sailing, diving, dance troupe — dance team now — and we’ve got water polo in its infancy that seems to have grown some momentum for students, so that growth came internally from the students, and I think that that’s a real indicator that it wasn’t coming from a strategic plan, a five-year plan, or a 10-year plan, it came from within our student body,” Mr. Ribbens said.

Laura Gill, assistant director of athletics, has been working with Mr. Ribbens for the past four years. 

“When I was at Parker, a lot of my colleagues in the ISL would always talk about how Dave was such an important figure, not only in the ISL, but in the entire IHSA,” Ms Gill said. “So when I applied for this job, and knew I had the opportunity to work under him, that really excited me because he’s such an accomplished director.”

Ms. Gill has admired Mr. Ribbens’s initiative and decisive leadership in the face of adversity. Mr. Ribbens was committed to ensuring that the fall and winter seasons would take place during the COVID-19 pandemic to improve students’ physical and mental health. 

“He just really understands the moment, and I think that’s the most impressive thing about him, and I’ve really learned from him about understanding the moment and knowing when to react and how to react,” Ms. Gill said.

Ms. Gill said that she has enjoyed sharing the athletics office with Mr. Ribbens, and she will miss his sense of humor and collection of sports memorabilia.

“Mr. Ribbens loves to print,” Ms. Gill said. “I would say the sound of the printer is the sound that, when Mr. Ribbens is gone, I will miss the most because that man prints everything.”

Joyce Grotthus, a P.E. teacher and coach for middle school girls basketball and volleyball teams, was on the committee that hired Mr. Ribbens, and she has been able to see the results of all the work he has done in his time at Lab. 

“I think he was also able to do a lot with creating the Hall of Fame, creating the pictures. We never had the team photos on the walls. Those are all things that kind of made the students proud and wanted to be part of the athletic program,” Ms. Grotthus said. “When people walk through that hallway, they like looking at their old picture from like eighth grade. They walk through the hall and they’ll look for their little face and their friends, and they smile.”

Mr. Ribbens remained supportive of the no-cut policy for sports and continued to support the expansion of the program to whoever wants to compete.

“For some people, it means that we’re really not that competitive and that we’re not that serious about athletics. And I think that we’re both,” Mr. Ribbens said. “I think there’s students who are competitive, that are serious about it, and it’s good for our students who need that encouragement to be a part of the team that they belong to, and that’s a good thing for all students.” 

Mr. Ribbens’s success as an athletics director can be seen in the numbers. From 1983 to 2003, when Mr. Ribbens was hired, Lab won 21 IHSA championships in regionals, sectionals, super sectionals and state competitions across four sports. From 2003 to 2023, Lab has won 102 IHSA championships across 10 sports. 

“My favorite part is watching the students and seeing them mature and develop. By far, it’s enormously rewarding to see students do well, compete well and to see them in some ways from sixth grade,” Mr. Ribbens said. “It’s very unusual that we’ve got middle school and high school together, as far as one athletics department — most schools don’t have that. So I literally can see kids from sixth grade who are, you know, very small and inexperienced to kids who graduate years later.”