Central volleyball coach is driven by love of sports

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Members of the Central volleyball team include (front, left to right) Alivia Keppler, Kaitlyn Wiley, Chelsia Larson; (middle) Carly Kluesner, Isabelle Groth, Alyson Feickert, Miranda Larson; (back) coach Mike Smith, Peyton Finley, Brandy Beatty, Alexis Loan, Ava Pensel, Madeline Wille, Katelyn Scherf, Ashlyn Scherf and coach Stephanie Burke. (Photo courtesy of Blaker Photography)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

In his second season as head coach of Central’s volleyball program, the 20-year coaching veteran Mike Smith is looking to slow things down, get the team to play more consistently and understand the psychology of the players more, in order to improve relations and maximize potential. 

Part of this is spurred by a coaching philosophy that focuses on constantly improving and getting better. 

“You may not win them all, but as long as the team keeps getting better, then you are coaching them,” Smith said. 

The other part of this philosophy goes back to what inspired Smith in the first place: a love of sports. He took that love and an interest in volleyball and parlayed that into taking coaching classes, working with and learning from other experienced coaches and adding a dose of inspiration from legendary basketball coach John Wooden. 

This love of sports also bleeds into the love of competition and motivation to succeed. Of course, this success isn’t entirely dependent on Smith because it also requires the team. This year’s team, according to Smith, is willing to “ put in all the sweat, blood and tears,” necessary to achieve victory. “Girls have stepped up into roles they didn’t play last year. That has only made us stronger. I get my motivation from the girls and hope they get it from me,” he said. 

This love is also about that “ah-ha” moment when everything comes together, and, for Smith, this happens when “the girls realize they can play the game and they are really good at it, and then they start playing as a team.” 

It’s about getting the players to overcome their self-doubt and realize they are really good players who can “accomplish a lot more than they think they can,” if they believe in themselves, he added. Confidence leads to consistency, and consistency leads to winning, and winning cures all sorts of sporting ills. 

This love extends beyond the court, into player safety and not just for the usual game-related injuries. It’s also about protecting players and the community from COVID-19, with a one-day-at-a-time approach and promoting safety and caution. 

“I am constantly concerned about player/student safety. All of us here at Central are,” Smith said. 

Among the ways the season will be changed due to COVID-19 is the introduction of enhanced safety measures. As Smith summarized, “The girls are to bring hand sanitizer; there is a three-ball rotation during games and they are sanitized between uses. Teams have to bring their own balls when traveling. Tournaments are being done at more than one site, and there is only pool play and no tournament finals, and fans will be required to have on masks if they attend a game or be six feet apart.” 

Despite the increased focus on player safety and the changes, the team has seen no loss in participation. In fact, Smith believes all of the newfound rules will “only make [them] stronger and work as a team more.”

It’s a team that is well equipped to make a run, with talent at all the key positions. 

The setting is led by Ava Pensel, who is “very consistent [and] has really stepped up,” Smith said. Leading the defense are Maddy Wille and Alivia Keppler, while outside hitters Brandy Beatty and Lexi Loan and middle hitters Chelsia Larson and Isabelle Groth “are hitting the ball really hard.” Add in Kaitlyn Wiley and the rest of the team pushing each other in practice, you have a team that is improving on the little things and learning the value and importance of playing consistently, the coach said.

There is an inherent love for the sport. It’s about performing for parents and a community that, according to Smith, “Have always been great, and they really want us to be successful. They are the root of the team and have supported us in so many ways...Without the fan support and the people in the community, we wouldn’t have a team. They are with us through thick and thin.” 

As the young, but talented, team prepares for the season, which commenced on Aug. 29 with a tournament at Cascade High School, Smith is “looking forward to a great year and seeing the program grow.”

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