New Rogers High volleyball coach Rachel Dunn knows quite a bit about executing under pressure.
Her experience comes from a four-year stint playing collegiate volleyball for West Point (2006-2010) and six-year stint in the U.S. Army.
Despite having never coached volleyball at the high-school level, when Dunn came in for her interview at Rogers, she made it easy for the school, as officials felt Dunn’s background would allow her to handle the pressure of taking over a program with so little time to prepare for the season.
With the Rams looking to find a replacement for former coach John Reopelle, the options were plenty, but the timing wasn’t in Rogers’ favor. It was the end of April, a time most programs were setting up spring and summer activities — not trying to find a new leader.
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“A few of the girls on the (Rogers) team came in (to Reality Sports) and really pushed for me to interview,” said Dunn, who works at Reality Sports, a sports ministry organization in Puyallup.
After a volleyball career of 18 years, which started at Humble High, about 20 miles north of Houston, Dunn spent six years on active-duty in the Army (2010-2015) before moving out to the Northwest and working at Reality Sports.
It’s been a trial by fire. I was in the Army for six years, so that stress level taught me that anything compared to that is low key. It’s not rocket science.
Rachel Dunn, Rogers High volleyball coach
“I have been coaching since last December, so I’ve barely reached nine months in my coaching career,” Dunn said. “It’s been a trial by fire. I was in the Army for six years, so that stress level taught me that anything compared to that is low key. It’s not rocket science.”
Still, for Rogers to match the level of performance seen late last year, it was important for the school to have its new coach and the returning players mesh. Communication is key, and sometimes an Army mindset doesn’t match up with a teenager’s personality. Dunn’s not worried.
“I think in this instance, it been a blessing because they’re such good kids,” Dunn said. “I can see how in other circumstances how that can be a curse, too. Because as (players) get older, you carry ‘old-dog’ habits — habits that are hard to change. (But) these are such good kids; they welcomed me into the program with open arms.”
“For me personally, it’s been a positive experience,” she added.
Still, the learning curve remains for the Rams’ new coach.
“It’s been funny because the last time I played was in Division I,” said Dunn, who played outside hitter at West Point. “One challenge I already noticed for me is it’s hard to scale my expectations sometimes. It’s not that can’t do it ever — I have to remember sometimes that two of my freshman just turned 14 in August.”
Even with all her playing experience, combined with the leadership training she learned while at West Point and in the Army, choosing Dunn was an easy choice for Rogers High athletic director Peter Collins — even with the little coaching experience Dunn has accumulated since she began coaching back in December of 2015.
We feel we made an excellent hire, and couldn’t be happier with how things have worked out since she’s been here.
Peter Collins, Rogers High athletic director
“We feel we made an excellent hire, and couldn’t be happier with how things have worked out since she’s been here,” Collins said.
Entering Monday, Rogers has played 36 games in its matches so far this season, winning 27 of them. And the girls on the team really responded to Dunn better than Collins could have hoped, he said.
Rogers (3-2 entering the week) is off to a good start to the season.
Perhaps the best result any new coach could want came at the Sterling Volleyball Classic on Sept. 10 at Auburn Mountainview High, when Rogers came away as tournament champions. The showing was surprising to Dunn.
“(The players) were amazing to watch. They were just on fire,” she said. “I really think this team can go (far), and I didn’t expect that as a first-year coach.”
Back in spring, the worst thing happened to Hannah Burkart. As a junior last season, Burkart was the rock of the team, but five months ago, she tore tendons in her knee, prematurely ending her high-school career.
Even though she was going to be out the entire season, Dunn decided to keep Burkart a part of the team.
“She’s been helping a lot, as she’s been helping our middle (hitters) in a lot of ways,” said Dunn, who made Burkart a middle-hitter skill coach, as well as an extra voice on the bench. “Peer leadership is hard, and she’s not afraid of it at all. I just so wish that it didn’t happen to her, and I feel horrible for her losing her senior year. But she’s really happy to be here in the capacity she’s in, and the girls really look up to her.”
That move — keeping one of their own involved and a part of the team — has made the Rams stronger, while having them get to Dunn’s level of expectations so quickly.
It’s the little moves like the one with Burkart that show examples that Dunn just might get it, and that Rogers High has made the right hire.
“We have a lot of work still to do, but they are heading in the right direct. We should peak at the right time, during the league season,” Dunn said. “They are just rolling with the punches, and they’re just performing.”