Volleyball Coach Reflects on First Season
Published on December 5, 2022 - 10 a.m.
Southwestern Michigan College Head Volleyball Coach Jenny Nate devoted a decade to patiently assembling a powerhouse Niles Vikings program.
Ten years later, Nate, 50, finds herself at a similar juncture, except she’s laying intercollegiate masonry. Reflecting on her rollercoaster first season at the Roadrunners’ helm, reviving volleyball from the ground up after a 26-year void, she faces personal and professional challenges.
The Roadrunners returned with a 14-20 record and 5-7 for a fourth-place finish in the Michigan Community College Athletic Association Western Conference, winning the play-in game over Schoolcraft Community College in the Great Lakes District A Tournament held at St. Clair County Community College.
SMC swept Cuyahoga Community College 25-13, 28-26 and 25-18 before elimination by Terra State 25-16, 22-25, 25-21 and 25-11.
The Roadrunners raced out of the gate, splitting with eventual MCCAA Western Conference champion Lake Michigan College and North Central Michigan College in the inaugural 1st Source Bank Fieldhouse match Aug. 27, only to be beset by injuries.
The life Nate has built with boundless energy and meticulous time management supports three pillars, which include her three children and teaching English full time at Niles High School.
Her days begin at 5 a.m. with a workout. By 6, her players receive motivational quotes, video or time-blocking and self-care tips. She makes recruiting calls during lunch breaks and sets aside 30 minutes after work for her German shepherd and golden retriever.
She watched SMC’s basketball victory over the College of DuPage with one of her players, daughter Nikki, 21, an SMC nursing student. Nikki’s twin brother, Tommy, studies finance at Grand Valley State University. Her older son, Tony, 23, lives in California.
Nikki was one of three players recognized in the postseason with Faith Rankin (Battle Creek Lakeview) and Cadence Knight (Niles).
Rankin received first-team All-MCCAA Western Conference and All-Freshman accolades. Nate made second team. Knight earned second team and All-Freshman.
Nate noted during a Lightning Talk at Mathews Library, “At first, I felt like a traitor even coming to campus,” despite her SMC medical transcription degree. “Once I saw how kind, passionate and excited everyone is, I was blown away. This wasn’t me just leaving Niles. I coached clubs the rest of the year from all over Michigan and Indiana. This is a stepping-stone to another level to help all these players. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made in my life, but I took the leap.”
“The more (President Dr. Joe Odenwald) talked about their vision, the more intriguing it became. It was flattering they saw success I had, but building that culture took 10 years,” said Nate, whose team fell in the quarterfinals of its second state run since 2017.
Nate doesn’t remember ever not being competitive, whether playing softball, basketball and volleyball or showing horses and dogs. “I shot balls into a laundry basket in the driveway when I was little,” she said.
At Western Michigan University, she studied psychology and toyed with journalism after editing sports for the college paper. She has always been passionate about reading and writing.
“It all landed me where I think I was meant to be, teaching and coaching,” said Nate, who worked in a psychologist’s office with her SMC credential.
“From 2012-15 at Niles, we played teams that kicked our butts. In 2015, we won our first conference title. This year, we lost our first SMC match — to the No. 5 team in the country. My philosophy is that we’re not going to play easy teams to pack our record.”
Nate can call on a strong network of coaching contacts from Notre Dame to Stanford and Gonzaga. “(Wrestling) Coach (Todd) Hesson and I are great resources for each other because we were together for 10 years at Niles.”
College players differ from high schoolers as “adults going in a million different directions” juggling classes and jobs. She must mesh standouts accustomed to being stars at the high-school level into a cohesive college team. As a concession to these new demands, she stepped back from club coaching for the first time in 15 years.
“It’s a learning curve for me to remember not everybody is (as regimented) as me,” she said. “I have to meet my players and students where they’re at. Being a brand-new program is a recruitment challenge until I can get them here and they see who we are. (Recruits) gravitate to teams that win. I’m selling a vision until we get the culture in place.
“We’re building the lower level of bricks. Our record was all over the place because we played tough teams. Nobody thought we could make it to the postseason. We surpassed the preseason coaches’ poll. I plan to be at the top. We’ll get there, but we’re still brick-building. It’s the challenge of my life, but I love it so far.”