John’s Journal: Young Coaches Join Storied Volleyball Programs
Former Players Take On Important Roles At Eagan And Chaska
Posted: Tuesday, September 5, 2023 - 4:08 PM
Volleyball is a sport steeped in tradition, as well as often family ties, and that is a ready theme during the current high school season.
The biggest offseason coaching change in years took place at Eagan High School, where Kathy Gillen – who was named the program's head coach when the school opened in 1989 – became an assistant when her daughter, McKenna Melville, was named head coach shortly after graduating from college.
And at Chaska High School, head coach Sue Murphy promoted two of her former players to varsity assistants following the retirement of Chuck Zemek after 26 years. Makayla Wenzel (Murphy’s niece), the setter on Eagan’s 2014 state championship team, and 2017 graduate Makenzie Bachmann are new members of the Hawks’ varsity coaching staff. Bachmann was part of an NCAA Division III national championship team at Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2021.
Gillen, who was inducted into the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2014, and Murphy, who became a member of the Hall of Fame in 2015, are thrilled to have young coaches take on big responsibilities.
“They know my game style, my purpose of why I’m a coach, and just the style of my coaching and what I expect,” said Murphy, who has been part of the Chaska volleyball program for 42 years. “We like to keep it in the community. After Chuck resigned, I took a couple weeks and thought hard about who should be my assistants.”
Wenzel has been a Chaska B squad coach and Bachmann coached at the 9A level prior to this season.
Melville’s rise to head coach followed an all-state high school career at Eagan and an All-American career as an outside hitter at Central Florida. Because the Covid pandemic allowed college athletes to compete for an extra year, Melville, 23, was in school for five years and came home to Eagan with a Master’s degree. She was hired as a teacher at Eagan, joining her mom on the math faculty.
“I always tell people that she sees the game in slow motion, so if she can get the team to understand some of that volleyball IQ, that's going to help us a lot,” Gillen said.
Eagan and Chaska are two of Minnesota’s marquee volleyball schools. Both have been to state 16 times and own seven state titles; Eagan won it all in 1997, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2013, 2015 and 2016, and Chaska did so in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1996, 2005, 2006 and 2014.
Wenzel said she is excited about the challenge and the future.
“I think it brings a new aspect with us being younger,” she said. “Chuck was the assistant coach for a long time, those are impossible shoes to fill and he has been one of my favorite coaches ever. He's just a great person and really will leave a legacy forever. So I don't think we'll ever replace Chuck, but I do think that we bring a different look, being fresh out of college and just having a perspective that's more similar to the players in terms of our age. But also, we've been through this, we've walked in their shoes. We know what this looks like.”
Melville began her college days as a finance major before switching to education during the pandemic.
“I knew I wanted to coach and teach,” she said. “I just knew that my bucket was being filled by helping other people and being around the sport that I love more than anything.”
Eagan athletic director Sandra Setter Larsen said the mother-daughter similarities are clear.
“McKenna’s got lot of energy and great personality. In many ways she’s so much like her mom in her competitiveness and ability to see the court and know the game and understand the game. One of Kathy’s great gifts is to succinctly say what the athlete or the student needs to hear. In some ways they are two peas in a pod with a lot of the same gifts.”
Gillen said discussions about coaching positions began last spring when McKenna was applying for a teaching position at Eagan.
“One thought was, ‘Should she be an assistant for a year or something like that?’ And I was like, ‘No, I'll be there.’ She's brought in a lot of new stuff that should make us a little bit better. It was just kind of a natural slide into that position for her.”
All three of the young coaches are thrilled to be in their new positions, realizing the importance of the sport and their school’s programs. And that includes the two longtime head coaches.
“She's just inspiring,” Bachmann said of Murphy. “She really kick-started Chaska volleyball years and years ago and that legacy is important. Playing for her, there is a serious weight to that, with hundreds of girls that will forever wish they could put on a jersey again and play for Sue.
“She's a leader, she's one of the most committed people I've ever gotten to know. She just is someone who really puts her entire heart into the program, and that will never go away. She is the reason why Chaska volleyball became what it is. It’s been an honor to play for her and now coach with her.”
“I just hope more kids would do this,” said Murphy. “Giving back is huge.”
--MSHSL senior content creator John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]