Sharon Zavala didn’t envision herself coaching volleyball at the time of her arrival at Grand Island Central Catholic. The sport’s seeds were still sprouting in Nebraska, and Zavala was hired to start the school’s girls basketball program anyway.
“Actually, I really thought I’d be a track coach,” said Zavala, who has led GICC to 10 state championships. “I was more track and softball than I was volleyball.”
When the head volleyball coach at the time told Zavala that she should be the volleyball coach instead, Zavala gave it a shot. Her knowledge of the sport was minimal – she officiated matches while in college.
It was a starting point though. Forty-eight seasons and a whopping 1,148 career wins later, Zavala is one of the more decorated and accomplished coaches in the state.
The state volleyball tournament takes center stage this week in Lincoln. Forty-eight teams will compete for six state championships. This year’s field once again includes a deep crop of Division I recruits, and many others who plan to play at the Division II and III and NAIA levels.
The star power, however, isn’t limited to the players. Many of the state’s most successful volleyball coaches are in Lincoln, as well.
Sue Wewel, who ranks second on the all-time career wins chart with 766 victories, has Archbishop Bergan back in the tournament for a sixth straight season. Kearney Catholic’s Kris Conner, who reached 700 career wins earlier this year, and Omaha Marian’s Jake Moore (729 wins) have teams in the field. Renee Saunders is looking to lead Omaha Skutt to an eighth straight Class B championship.
And yes, Zavala and the Crusaders are back for a 34th time.
They follow a trail that was blazed by the likes of Steve Morgan, Sandi Genrich, John Petersen, Alan VanCura, Bill Root, Diane Rouzee and many others.
“We’re blessed with so many great coaches in the state,” Saunders said.
A volleyball state
There’s a reason why Nebraska is tabbed a “volleyball state.” The Nebraska Huskers are at the head of the table. In-state college programs like Creighton, Omaha, Nebraska-Kearney, Wayne State and Midland are prospering. High school volleyball is at the table, too, and a large stable of dedicated and knowledgeable coaches are a big reason why.
The state’s volleyball prowess can be traced to advocates like Terry Pettit. Yes, Pettit built the Huskers into a college powerhouse, but he also hosted clinics for high school coaches, educating them on fundamentals and culture.
“He really pushed you to think about why you were doing what you were doing, and he told you some basic, basic truths that you needed to know as a coach,” said Zavala, who attended many clinics hosted by Pettit.
Wewel learned a lot from those clinics, too. In fact, the longtime Bergan coach said she continues to use some of the drills she picked up from Pettit.
Leaning on each other
The coaches also are not shy about turning to each other for tips and advice.
Wewel was a student-teacher at Lincoln Pius X when Genrich coached the Thunderbolts. Zavala said she learned a lot from Genrich, who went on to have great success at Lincoln Northeast.
“I think coaches get passionate about it and when you’re passionate about something, you like to talk about it,” Zavala said.
Saunders turned to mentors like Genrich, Myron Oehlerking, Rochelle Rohlfs and Pettit, her college coach. She’ll also pick the minds of coaches like Zavala and Lincoln Lutheran’s Sue Ziegler.
“I feel like the volleyball coaching community is very good about … we want each other to succeed,” said Saunders, who also travels around the state to put on summer camps. “Obviously, I’m competitive, I want to win, but I love seeing athletes compete, I love when other teams play well.”
Rich in wins
If you want to take part in a fun math exercise, begin adding up the career wins of coaches in this year’s state tournament.
Moore, in his first season at Marian, has 729 wins, most of those coming at Lincoln Pius X. Humphrey St. Francis’ Dean Korus is approaching 700 wins, and Lincoln Lutheran’s Ziegler recently reached the 500-victory milestone.
A Class C-1 first-round match pitting GICC and Kearney Catholic will feature a combined 1,869 wins between Zavala and Conner.
“We have just seen volleyball grow significantly in popularity,” said Conner, who has led the Stars to four state titles. “The game and skill level … it’s fun to be a part of. I think the people that are there doing it are not there for the money. It’s because you love the sport.”
Conner has been leading the Stars’ program since 1992. Zavala has coached for 48 seasons and Wewel 41. Still, each coach said they never stop learning.
“Sometimes I wish I could shut it down,” Conner joked. “You’re just constantly looking for … kids are different each year. If I coached the same way I did in the early 90s, it’d be rough.
“Honestly it goes year to year, what works with one group doesn’t work with the next so it’s trying to figure out the puzzle.”
The puzzle is why these coaches keep coming back. The game continues to evolve, and the coaches continue to keep up.
“I’m evolving all the time,” Wewel said. “I’m trying to find new and better ways. The kids have evolved, too. In this day and age, I think you have to create that culture where you’re going to be there for them, but you also have high expectations.”
The evolution continues this week. Fans will be treated to great athleticism, thrilling rallies and sound game plans prepped by coaches who know a thing or two about winning.
“You just had this evolution of girls wanting to be great, but you also see this evolution of coaches wanting to be great at their craft,” Saunders said. “They want to know how to develop the girls, they want to be able to develop the teams.
“We’re always trying to get better because we know somebody else is.”