For first year volleyball coach Kelli Wilson the task of coaching the Gar-Field varsity team unexpectedly fell in her lap. A week before August tryouts new Gar-Field Athletic Director Michael Payne approached Wilson, who he knew and trusted, and asked if she was up for the challenge. Wilson, who was hesitant at first, now looks back and knows that she made the right choice, and that her life has become more fulfilled as a result.
“I became more aware of how to deal with personal situations not just volleyball situations,” said Wilson. “My main goal was to give the girls a positive experience and get them to learn something beyond volleyball. It's about life and how to be a better person. Each week I would mentally ask myself 'did I do 100 percent of what I could do to make them better athletes and better people.' Nowadays a lot of coaches forget that these student athletes are also going to be individuals in society after high school. So it's imperative that we not only set a positive example, but that we also steer them in the right direction because they might not play sports after school.”
How Wilson ended up coaching volleyball at Gar-Field is somewhat ironic. She graduated from Hylton high school and had more experience and greater success playing softball than volleyball. In 2001 Wilson and the Bulldogs qualified for the volleyball state tournament, but lost; and in 2003 she was a part of the Cardinal District championship softball team. Wilson is currently a temporary teacher at Woodbridge in the subjects of health and physical education.
“I remembered the fun things about volleyball in high school,” said Wilson about coaching against Hylton this season. “It was cool going back. I'm still familiar with a lot of the faculty; they're very warm and welcoming. I walked in and reminisced about the different banners on the wall, but other than that, it was a completely different experience returning as a coach.”
By her own admission, Wilson's team played its two best regular season games against Hylton, and even forced a playoff game to decide which of them would compete in the district tournament. The Indians lost, but it was apparent that there was a greater intensity when playing against Wilson's sister-in-law, Lauren, and at times Gar-Field's players chanted “Kelli,” which made her blush.
As is the case with most teams, the bond between Wilson and the players grew as the season progressed, but it wasn't always easy. High school cliques and the misinterpretation of messages between coach and players can severely challenge an athletic program. At times, situations tested the will, integrity, and patience of Wilson.
“There were days when I thought 'man, this is a lot harder that I thought,'” said Wilson. “But I've definitely realized that I love it. I have a feeling that I'm decent at it, but if they weren't testing my will, making me worry and making me second guess, then I probably wasn't doing a good job anyway. Coaches need to be tested and when the passion and desire is no longer present within a coach, then they probably shouldn't be coaching.”
Wilson acknowledged that it wasn't her own self-determination that helped her maintain faith. Players, such as seniors Kianna Vivanco and Giovanna Blanco, had an active role in boosting team morale and maintaining cohesion when things got rough.
“Gio was such a pleasant surprise,” said Wilson. “I came into this season without any expectations of this team and Gio totally surprised me. If I made a request, she was the athlete that would reiterate it to the girls. You could tell on the court that she is passionate about the sport, which was really cool for me to watch because many times when I thought that I was at the end of my road and nobody was cooperating Gio would pull through and help me maintain my faith in them.”
When asked to grade her efforts as a coach this season, Wilson said that she deserved a B.
“I hesitate to give myself a C because I think I did above average,” said Wilson. “I definitely put my heart and soul into coaching this season, and I remained passionate about not only the sport but the girls as well. I not only cared about their athletic ability, but I also cared about them as students and individuals.”
Wilson was perhaps being modest. Considering the resources at her disposal and the short preparation time before the season, she at least deserves a B+. Gar-Field does not have a freshman team in which to groom players for the junior varsity and varsity levels; furthermore, the Indians' first practice occurred a week late because of the last minute hiring of Wilson. Despite those obstacles, Gar-Field was one game away from qualifying for the district tournament. Wilson said that in order to improve her grade to an A she would have to recruit players for a freshman team, participate in off-season camps to improve the players' skills, and incorporate more team building activities throughout the season so that the team bonds together around a common goal and dismisses the drama that surrounds life in high school.
Wilson's father—Bob, who is also a coach—has a saying that she will always remember.
“Don't talk about it, be about it,” said Wilson. “He would always tell me, 'Kelli, if you're good, you don't have to say anything. People will know.' Maybe as a coach you should kinda keep things to yourself and when good things happen, people will notice it. You don't have to spread the word that you're doing something good. People will find out; good things get recognized. In today's world we have a lot of politics in athletics. [We should] take away the politics and get back to the reason that we're coaching, and that should be for the athletes to learn, have fun, and play the game.”
Giovanna Blanco: 70 digs, 24 kills, four assists and 16 aces.
Rose-Ellen Mock: 61 digs, 31 kills, 177 assists, two blocks and 33 aces.
Olga Oleynik: 12 digs, 73 kills, one assist, two blocks and 16 aces.
Keira Reyes: 91 digs, 10 kills, 13 assists, one block and eight aces.
Jeyka Cabral: 27 digs and seven aces.
Jasmine Swanger: 60 digs, 14 kills, five assists, three blocks and 16 aces.
Kayla Watts: 75 digs, one kill, 37 assists and two aces.
Day'ona Bowden: 14 kills and one block.
Kianna Vivanco: 52 digs, 136 kills, 6 assists, eight blocks and 16 aces.