In Play with Craig Mattick: Jean O'Hara
For the past twenty-two years, Jean O'Hara has been coaching volleyball at Chester Area. Despite only having one state title, the Flyers have been one of the best volleyball programs in the state throughout Jean's tenure. Not only does she have over 450 wins, but she's helped lead her squad to the state tournament a dozen times.
Craig Mattick: Welcome to another edition of In Play. I'm Craig Mattick. Today's guest has been a long-time volleyball coach, 22 years, and getting close to joining an elite group of volleyball coaches winning 500 matches. Today's coach has one championship in volleyball and really if it wasn't for two other schools, she might have a lot more. Our guest today has built a great volleyball program with more than a dozen trips to the state tournament. Our guest today, Chester Area Flyers' head volleyball coach, Jean O'Hara. Jean, welcome to In Play.
Jean O'Hara: Oh Craig, thanks for having me.
Craig Mattick: 22nd year of coaching volleyball in South Dakota, all at Chester Area. But what were you doing 23 years ago? It's 1999. What were you doing before you became the head coach at Chester Area?
Jean O'Hara: Well, I was teaching in Chester. I just was not coaching volleyball. I actually started my career in Chester in 1998, the fall of 1998. For four years prior to teaching in Chester, I was teaching at Oldham-Ramona. I did put in two years of teaching in Chester before I actually started coaching.
Craig Mattick: What were you teaching?
Jean O'Hara: Teaching vocal music. I'm a vocal music teacher.
Craig Mattick: Have you been a South Dakota girl?
Jean O'Hara: I have. Actually, I was born and raised near the Madison area. That's where my parents still live and reside, and I'm actually a graduate of the Chester High School.
Craig Mattick: Where did the interest in volleyball come from?
Jean O'Hara: Well, I tell you what, I love it. I just absolutely, I love it. When I was in college, softball and volleyball were the only two things I actually picked up my coaching endorsements in. And at the time we were not playing softball as an organized sport here in South Dakota for high school athletics. My heart went straight to volleyball, and I absolutely have been in love with the game ever since.
Craig Mattick: What kind of player would you have been on the court if you played for Chester Area?
Jean O'Hara: I did play. I would like to think I was a competitor. I don't care much for losing. It didn't matter if I was 16, 17, 18 years old or the age I am now. I kind of prefer to be on the winning end of things.
Craig Mattick: Who was your coach at that time?
Jean O'Hara: Craig, my dad, Steve O'Hara was my volleyball coach in high school. He did the volleyball program at Chester for a lot of years until he got out and retired. I think there was just one other coach that went in between him being the head coach and me taking the program over.
Craig Mattick: What were you thinking when that opportunity came? Was that something that you had to be nudged at or something you were really excited about?
Jean O'Hara: Oh, no nudge needed. I was super excited for that. I actually did a stint my second year there as an assistant basketball coach. Brent Norberg who's now up in Aberdeen was head both girls and basketball coach in Chester and I was his assistant for a year, just kind of get in and do some coaching. The gentleman we had as our head coach who had daughters in the program as a volleyball coach, when his daughter was a senior, he was done, and he'd been there for a while doing it and did a nice job of it. But when his daughter graduated, his youngest daughter, he wanted to be done, and I walked right in and said, "Hey, I'd love to have that if it's available," and that was it.
Craig Mattick: Jean, who were some of the other coaches who were mentors to you when you were just getting in the head coaching position?
Jean O'Hara: Well, Jill Christensen of course has always been a mentor of mine, and she's now not only a mentor, but I would just call her a dear friend. She really is a colleague and a friend. But just looking up to her and the program that she had created, I would say Joyce Farrell, the coach from Madison. Wow. Boy, she ran a good program up there. I can remember as a young coach having to play against those Lady Bulldogs from Madison, and they were fierce and they were good. I remember thinking that's what I want my kids to play like. As a young coach, those were at least two highly impressionable coaches that I really looked up to.
Craig Mattick: How about your father? What advice did he give, if any, for you as a coach?
Jean O'Hara: Well Craig, he's not done giving it. My folks go to every single one of our volleyball matches if they can. In fact, they are great Chester supporters in everything. They go to all the matches, and they don't even have any grandkids in the building anymore. But he's always got some thoughts after matches so I'm always intrigued by what he sees and what he thinks, and sometimes we agree and sometimes we don't. But he's been one of my best mentors as well. We can joke now about the things that he used to say or maybe the things we used to get coached on the most when I was younger are still ironically some of the things that I'm still having to coach kids up on today. I think the circle continues of what needs to be done with kids to just make them better players.
Craig Mattick: What was Chester Area volleyball like before you got there?
Jean O'Hara: The program itself, I think, has always just had an outstanding reputation from the time that it started until hopefully we're still living under that and living up to that. I would say today I just think that we have such good kids and I think even though it has gone from one coach to another. When you've got kids who are willing to work hard and a community that supports the kids and a community that supports what goes on in that school building and shows that that building is the pride of the community, I think you're able to build really good programs both on and off court.
Craig Mattick: Jean, I think there's a full generation now that doesn't know that we had volleyball in the fall at one point in time. What was that like when you were coaching volleyball in the fall?
ean O'Hara: Well, I'll tell you, it was a totally different world and I only had to do that once. I'm one of the few that can say I coached both in the spring of 2002 and I coached in the fall of 2002 when we moved. I think it was a great move for South Dakota, I really do, that we are playing volleyball when everybody else in the nation is. I know it was kind of a battle to get it that way. I think equally it's good that our kids, both boys and girls, are playing basketball at the same time when other collegiate athletes and others are. But it was a huge, huge difference. I mean, it really was to make that change.
Now like you say, we don't even think about it because we're so used to having volleyball here in the fall. But it was a good move for the sport and I love it. I really do. Selfishly, I like having the gym kind of just all to ourselves. We really don't have to worry about an early practice, late practice schedule. I know that's a big battle that basketball coaches have to go through, and I'm just really thankful that we really don't have to do that in the fall. That was the biggest setback for us was trying to get that practice schedule set up.
Craig Mattick: You mentioned 2002. Two state tournaments in a very short period of time, but Harding County won both of those state tournaments. Did you get a chance to play Harding County any of those two times at State?
Jean O'Hara: I did not. In fact, in 2002 Chester was an A school. We spent four years from 2002-2006 being an A school. We were battling the likes of, we were in a district with I think West Central and Madison and McCook Central. I remember a couple of Puthoff girls and a Hoofer girl from West Central that were pretty darn good athletes back there in the early 2000s that we were playing against. I think they won some basketball state championships.
Craig Mattick: Class B though now and in fact since we all know what Class B volleyball has been like over the past 22 years. In fact, since 2000, every class B volleyball tournament has been won by either Warner or Northwestern except Harding County in 2002, Phillip in 2008, Arlington in 2010 and your Chester Area Flyers in 2015. What is it about class B volleyball?
Jean O'Hara: Well, I tell you what, especially when you talk about Warner and Northwestern, you're talking about two incredibly intelligent ladies running those programs with great volleyball minds. They do a really good job of executing game plans and knowing what it takes to get players successful on a volleyball court, and you see that when you just see year after year after year, those are the top teams in class B I think it says something about the ladies running those programs too.
Craig Mattick: When did volleyball become a year round sport? I talk about volleyball where right after the state volleyball tournament, a lot of kids go right and play club volleyball and they will play volleyball right through the summer. When did that happen with volleyball in South Dakota?
Jean O'Hara: That's been an emerging trend, I would say for probably a decade at least. I think we're hitting about 10 good solid years of pretty aggressive club ball. We've got some outstanding South Dakota athletes, probably most namely Taryn Kloth who did some really good things in club ball and now is even playing on the professional beach volleyball circuit and spent a lot of time on a volleyball court in the off season and it's good for the game. It has made some of our players really, really into exceptional volleyball players the time that they're spending doing that, not during the season. And I think as coaches we probably have arguments for it and I think we have the argument of what some of the drawbacks can be, but I'll tell you what, it has made the game faster. It has made our kids more athletic, that's for certain.
Craig Mattick: Has that made it a year round sport for you too, Jean? Are summers pretty much filled up with watching volleyball or coaching volleyball?
Jean O'Hara: You know, they are. I think they always have been a little bit. I think your coaching brain, if it takes any time off at all, which I'm not really sure it does, but we kind of try and reload ourselves getting into the early parts of the late spring and early summer of "Okay, let's get our kids on a court, let's see what we're going to be able to put together for this fall." We try and get into some competitive team camps and open gym kind of sessions and that's been there a lot longer than I think club volleyball has for sure, for certain, just getting your teams together in the summer. But I think it has changed the aspect of what we do as far as thinking that if you're not doing it somewhere someone else is and you're going to be behind if you're not doing that as well.
Craig Mattick: How do you try not to burn out the sport for those that are playing a lot?
Jean O'Hara: I think that's a really good question to ask Craig. I think it's important to keep kids being kids. I know, especially in the summertime, I am pretty aware of where our kids at are at and what they're doing and try especially hard to let them be kids they to. I firmly believe that they do need to have that downtime to be kids in the summer and to enjoy doing summer activities. So we're real careful. We do sit together down as a staff at school and kind of flat out now when are you going to a camp, for example with the girls basketball program and when are you going to camp and make sure that we don't double book our kids and make sure that kids do have opportunities to not be in that building all day, every day, all summer long.
Craig Mattick: Volleyball's one of the most repetitive sports that I know, everything from serving to passing to hitting. What's the most difficult part of volleyball to master?
Jean O'Hara: Probably ball control I think is probably the biggest factor in determining your success on a court because if you cannot control that first contact and get that ball up to where you're set and your hitters have an opportunity to be able to control the pace and to get a good swing on a ball, then you're really in trouble. And volleyball has really played about 70% of the time I would say out of system where you're not perfectly on target with that path.
And so I think it's important to train your kids to be able to swing at a ball that's out of system so that you are not giving up an easy ball to the other side of the net. Because any time you give up an easy ball, especially to a good team, that ball's going to come at you, pretty good speed on it when that happens. And so I think one of the biggest things I know that we focus on, and I think a lot of teams do, is really ball control. Making sure that you can handle that ball and put it on target where you need it to be.
Craig Mattick: What was that first practice like back 22, 23 years ago? You're the head coach, you're the brand new head coach, that very first practice and it was in the fall. What was it like? What do you remember from it?
Jean O'Hara: Well, it was probably super hot. I think we probably didn't even have air conditioning at the time, but I'll tell you, I have grown a lot as a coach. I think when I started out I would've answered the question, I would've said, "I coach volleyball. That's what I do. I coach volleyball." And now my answer to that question now is, "I coach kids". And I think I'm just such a smarter human being now than I was back then in the things that I thought I should be having my kids doing and the things now that I look back and go, we should not have even wasted the time to do that.
Because it wasn't game like, it wasn't making us better, it wasn't making us faster or stronger. And I think the growth really that you just see it when you are around kids and when you're around a game for any length of time just makes you realize if you could take it all back and do it again, you know would. But such good learning opportunities for me as a human being and as a coach to be around those kids I think is the biggest takeaway that I have from those years worth of experience.
Craig Mattick: Jean, you've taken your team to the state volleyball tournament more than a dozen times. What was that first year like and what kind of a team did you have?
Jean O'Hara: Well, I tell you what, you can't replace or even hardly explain the feeling of qualifying the very first time for a state tournament. We had, like I said earlier, we had been a class A school from 2002 until 2006. And then in 2007 we had a really, really large class and the magic number is 90 and we were halfway there with one class and so we were bumped up and then we knew we were going to go back down to class B and you could just see the glimmer in the eyes of my players and that kind of fire in their belly of, they're like, "Okay, here we go."
And it was just so fun to watch them. And I had a really, really good group of young ladies that year. They were actually mostly sophomores with a few juniors and we had to play Hurley in the region final that year and Hurley had been just in that state tournament every single year and we were able to beat them that first year. And the level of sheer excitement in not only my kids but just in the community that we were in, that state tournament is just something you can't quite really even explain. So we were pretty excited about it.
Craig Mattick: Well it's 14 or 15 years into your coaching career that it's 2013 and you make it to the finals at the state tournament first time ever and it was against Warner. What kind of a team did you have that year?
Jean O'Hara: We were pretty salty defensively. That particular team was about two years away from being an offensive, you know a huge offensive threat. But we did a really good job of keeping the ball off the court. And sometimes when you can do that, you are frustrating to other teams, to other hitters. And it had been a long drought of not getting past the Arlington Cardinals in a region matchup for us. And in 2013, again, sometimes the lines get redrawn. We were put into a different region and we did not have to battle through Arlington to get to the state tournament. In 2013, we went through different channels and both us and Arlington were in the state tournament and I would put Coach Beck right into that bucket of mentors who we have had some great, great matchups over the years. We both went into the final games of seasons one year we were undefeated and she came into town and whooped us.
I think one year they were undefeated and we might have slipped into town and maybe took one from them. And she is one of my, again, nearest and dearest coaching friends, just so much respect for Coach Beck in the program that she had built in Arlington that you just knew every time you played it was going to be an epic battle and you were not going to have any room to make mistakes. You were just going to have one of your best games in order to win it. And we were fortunate enough in that particular state tournament just to get one ball to go to the ground when we needed it to and were able to advance ourselves to the state championship against a really, really good Warner team. But we were glad to be there.
Craig Mattick: You had to play them again in 2014. You made it to the finals again and it was Warner again. And when you lost that one, were the feelings a lot different from 2013?
Jean O'Hara: It really was. In 2013, Coach Jung had such a good team, not that she doesn't have a good team every year, but they were so tall. But one of her players was over, well over 6'2", 6'3" and I think they hadn't dropped a set in two years when they won that, one in 2013. And in 2014 she had graduated some of her big tall towers and we were a little bit more competitive with them, but we weren't quite mistake free enough I guess I would say. Or rather they were still controlling the pace of the game and we didn't quite get that job done in 2014. But yeah, we did see him three years in a row in state championship.
Craig Mattick: Yeah, 2015, that was the big year, Warner and Chester area, again, three years in a row in the finals, the championship. And you got by Warner in that match in 2015. What set your team apart over Warner that year?
Jean O'Hara: Well we had Jenna Reese that year and she ended up being not only Miss Volleyball, but she was also the Gatorade player of the year for South Dakota. And I think anytime you have a player like that on your team, pretty fortunate situation as a coach to be in. And then I think at that point our kids maybe had a little bit more experience. Warner had turned the corner and an outstanding young player for them was Peyton Ellingson. But she was younger and I think we just maybe had a little bit more experience that year than they did. And I mean it took all five and we had seen them earlier in the year and they had beat us and sometimes it's just better to be lucky than good. And maybe it was just our day to have some luck go our way.
Craig Mattick: When you're walking by the trophy case or you still looking at that trophy that's in there that you won in 2015.
Jean O'Hara: You bet. It makes me smile every time.
Craig Mattick: But you were in the finals again the next year in 2016 and it was against Northwestern. What do you remember the most about that match with Northwestern?
Jean O'Hara: That was a battle too, if I remember right. We took one game from them and I think it was maybe game two, but that was-
Craig Mattick: It was actually game three because it went 25-23, 25-18 and then you won the third set, 26-24 before Northwestern won the final set, 25-19.
Jean O'Hara: Northwestern, I would say was just really on a mission that year because they had spent the three years prior not getting out of that district because Warner had been there. In fact, it might even have been four. I think Warner was there in 2012 when we weren't. And when you have to wait that long and then you finally get past Warner in your own district, which they had to live in that universe for so long, sometimes you cannot stop that steam engine when it's on the tracks. And Coach Groft and her girls knew that they had a huge opportunity and boy they took full advantage of it. They were a very good team that year.
Craig Mattick: I would assume coaches are very much in favor of the way of the playoffs they are today. You have the Dakota 16 or the sweet 16, wherever you call it, where that opportunity can be there where you get one or two, maybe three teams from the same district into the state tournament.
Jean O'Hara: Yep. You have to say that, I do think that has been a pretty good system as far as trying at least to even out and get, if your goal was to attempt to truly get eight of our best teams in class class B into the state tournament, then I think that the SoDak 16 has made state tournament games largely more competitive. There is no more... If you're a one seat or a two seed, I don't think you ever go into that state tournament and go, "Oh, we're playing the seven or the eight seed." I'll tell you what, there are eight really good teams now at the state tournament.
It has added more value to fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth place because of that. And there's no day to, you get an off game. If you can get into the state tournament, you are still fortunate to be there and you are going to have to work really hard against really good teams to win three games in a row when you're at the state tournament now. And I think that's really both as coaches, hopefully as athletes, as parents, as fans, I think that's what people hopefully can appreciate and respect is that we want three competitive games. You want your kids to have to be there to work hard and play good volleyball.
Craig Mattick: Jean, you're approaching 500 wins. There's only 11 other coaches in history that have won more than 500 volleyball matches. You would or could reach that 500 mark early next season. Do you have another season left in you?
Jean O'Hara: Craig? I'm going to tell you at this point, I really do feel like I have another season left in me. I'm planning to be back on a court next fall.
Craig Mattick: So what did it mean when you won 400, 3 years ago when you hit that magical mark?
Jean O'Hara: I'm going to be honest, I don't really pay a lot of attention to that number. If you ask me right now how many I have, I would to go and look it up because we need to play Arlington on Monday.
Craig Mattick: You're about 480. About 484 right now.
Jean O'Hara: And I think that's something that is not on a goal sheet, but it was a big deal for our kids. I think they had fun with it. It was fun to put that picture in a frame. I feel very honored that I have had athletes that can win those games because that's not me doing it. And so I think that is just a tribute to all the fantastically talented young ladies that I have had the privilege to be around and to coach that really, that number kind of belongs to them probably more than it belongs to me because they're the ones out there doing the work every night on the court.
Craig Mattick: Chester Area volleyball, they've won real close to 75% of all their matches under head coach, Jean O'Hara. Jean, what's it like to see some of your former players head off to college and play volleyball?
Jean O'Hara: Oh, I love it. I love that they're able to continue to play this game that they love and learn and grow from it. And oh, I took it, I took my team last week and we went and watched Dakota State University play against Dakota Wesleyan University and we had some Lady Flyer alum out on the court and it just warms my heart to watch them play, like I said, just to get them to see them play the game that they love and at such a high level and be competitors and with smiles on their faces and loving their teammates just makes me know that I'm definitely doing the right thing with my time. I love being in the gym with those kids and that they're able to continue to do that. Just makes me real happy. I love it.
Craig Mattick: Any former players coaching volleyball?
Jean O'Hara: I have had some, yeah, the couple girls that have graduated recently and both did a stint or two as coaches I think are not perhaps coaching right now, but they did and I think they are, at least one of them is about to be a young mother and I think kind of got out because she wants to focus on that. And another one of the gals who was coaching just changed schools and I believe is coaching at the school that she now is at as well. And then of course my own daughter is teaching and coaching as well. And so that's kind of fun also. So yeah, it's great to see former coaches or former players rather getting out and being young coaches because that's what we need. We need our players to love the game enough that they want to continue to teach it to young people.
Craig Mattick: And so what do you say to those young coaches, those just in the game now or the wannabe coaches, what do you say to those coaches about being successful in volleyball?
Jean O'Hara: I guess what I would want to tell them is you got to love it. You got to love it. You got to put a smile on your face and know that on any given day, 16 year olds are not highly predictable human beings and they probably never have been. They maybe never will be, but you got to love them. And at least my kids I know every day they show up, they are doing the absolute best that they can and they work hard and they would do anything that I ask them to do.
And if you can just have the patience to know that the things that we can teach young ladies, young girls about how to grow up to be just strong women, we can do that on a volleyball court. And I think that's what I love the most about it is it's really not about the wins and the losses and it's not about the sets and the big kills and the serving aces. It's about what those kids can learn about how they can live the rest of their life. And they can do that with confidence and I think that's really what we want to teach. These young girls who are on the volleyball courts.
Craig Mattick: I know you're involved with music, do you have to try to twist their arm to be in the musical or in the choir or some other form of being in music at Chester Area?
Jean O'Hara: I really don't. Vocal music is a requirement in Chester through the eighth grade, so I am fortunate enough to, it starts with little three year old, preschool music class. I have three year olds. Today, I had them twice, but all the way through eighth grade it's required. And then in high school, it does become an option to take high school choir. I have 96 kids in my high school choir. I think we maybe have 105 kids in high school and 96 of them are in high school choirs, so not a lot of arm twisting. They enjoy it and they like to be there and I love having them in there.
Craig Mattick: You haven't had to say, I need you to sing a solo or you can't play volleyball. You haven't had to do that.
Jean O'Hara: I did not have to do that, no.
Craig Mattick: What gives you the biggest joy of coaching volleyball at Chester Area?
Jean O'Hara: Ooh, the biggest joy, just being around the kids. I really, really enjoy being around the kids. It's still fun for me and I hope there never comes a day where I don't think it's fun. And I think volleyball is fun. I love my job. I love getting to play ukuleles and violins and sing with kids and teach them a skill that they can use their entire life. And yeah, I absolutely love what I do and coaching volleyball and getting to spend extra time with those kids after school in the summer on Saturdays and on evenings in the fall. I absolutely love it.
Craig Mattick: If you like what you're hearing, please give us a five star review wherever you get your podcasts. Programs such as this are only possible through the continued support of our listeners like you. For South Dakota Public Broadcasting, I'm Craig Mattick. Join us again on the next episode, I'll be In Play.